Posted by WiredSisters on March 14th, 2014 filed in Uncategorized

Today, the issue comes up mostly in the context of cell phones.  Some legislators have proposed that restaurants and other places of public accommodation be required to create “phone-free” zones, by analogy with smoke-free zones.  Others have imposed some sort of ban on driving under the influence of cell phones.  Commuter newsletters complain about cell phone use on trains and buses.

            The reasons for the objections vary.  Cell phone users are loud.  They drive dangerously.  They broadcast their private business to all the strangers around them.  The private business they broadcast may belong to their professional clients.  They don’t pay attention to the people physically present around them who are legitimately entitled to their immediate attention, like conductors asking for tickets, or waiters waiting for the check to be paid.  But the real problem, usually, is that cell phone users impose their personal privacy on public space. I ran into a particularly blatant instance at a bus stop, which involved no phone at all:  one young woman screeching at well over 95 dB to an acquaintance across the street, for well over two minutes.  When they were finally finished their conversation, I asked the one nearest to me if she could possibly not yell so loud, and she replied, “I wasn’t talking to you.”  Which was, of course, precisely the point.

            The cell phone, obviously, did not create this problem.  It has been with us, probably, as long as privacy itself.  Sometimes it is unavoidable, and the strangers in the vicinity can do nothing but courteously ignore the problem—a high-volume lovers’ quarrel in a restaurant, for instance, or a loss of control over peristalsis by someone who has become ill.  But more often, it involves people who voluntarily choose to bring into public space behavior that belongs at home—and then demand that the strangers around them afford it the same privacy it would have had at home.

            Sometimes, it’s just an animated and intimate personal conversation, perhaps a little louder than it has to be.  I once found myself staring in fascination at the ticket agent in a train station who was telling her colleague all about last Saturday night’s date with an utter jerk.  When she saw me obviously listening, she glared at me—but she did at least discontinue the conversation long enough to sell me a ticket.

            Sometimes it involves a parent-child interaction bordering on child abuse.  Advice columnists get lots of letters about such situations.  Parents—usually mothers—in grocery stores, or post offices, or restaurants, may yank and slap and scold their children in hair-raising ways.  If the child responds by crying, that may only escalate the parental aggression.  Once, when I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, a rather charming little boy who looked about four years old began making flirtatious overtures to me.  I responded by making faces, rather enjoying the whole things.  But the child’s mother yanked him away, sat him firmly in the chair next to her, slapped him, and told him to “stop bothering that lady.” When I responded that he hadn’t been bothering me at all, she told me, “mind your own business.”

            And that, it seems to me, is the problem.  Most of us who frequent public space would love to be able to mind our own business, rather than that of any adjacent stranger.  But by doing things in that space that should be done only at home, cell-phone users and near-abusive parents have made their business our business.  And then they have the nerve to demand that we make ourselves invisible, or pretend that they are invisible.

A few years ago, when Caller ID technology first became widely available to the general public, ACLU and other self-proclaimed privacy advocates objected to it on the basis that it violated the privacy of the caller.  Most people not only had trouble accepting that argument, they had trouble understanding it.  Somebody invades my space, by ringing my phone, and then demands privacy? Gimme a break.

            The technology as now used can be circumvented by the caller, either by calling from a pay phone or a multi-user phone system, or by a case-by-case sequence of numbers punched in before making the call.  On many Caller ID screens, a call blocked in any of these ways registers as “privacy.”  (I’m not making this up!)  And, of course, the largest proportion of “privacy” calls most of us get comes from those arch-invaders of domestic privacy, the telemarketers.

            So maybe we should be fighting back, against all the people who claim the right of privacy while either violating our privacy or infringing on public space, by emphatically denying them any privacy.  When a telemarketer calls, cut him off at the outset.  “What did you say your name was?  How do you spell that?  What’s your home address?  Are you married? Any kids? What are their names?  No kids? Oh!  What kind of birth control do you use? How do you like it? Have you ever considered a vasectomy?” and so on.  When someone makes a long, complicated, high-volume cell phone call at the dinner table next to yours, take out a pad and pen and start taking notes.  If the call ends before you have to leave, tell the caller, “That was a fascinating call. I’m in industrial espionage [or cultural anthropology, or an NSA investigator] and I’m really glad I got the chance to hear it.  Who was it you were talking to?  How do you spell that?” and so on.  Whatever it takes to get across to people: if you want privacy, stay home.  In public space, or in my space, if you are not here by my invitation, whatever you say is my business.

Red Emma


One Response to “Public/Private”

  1. Lynn Gazis-Sax (Sappho) Says:

    When we first moved here and got our current home phone number, I bought a bundle package that included caller ID. I soon learned that this was a bad bargain for us, because my mother-in-law was one of the people who habitually circumvented it, and what good is a caller ID system that won’t even tell you when it’s your mother-in-law calling?

    On telemarketers, currently I’m getting a lot of them at work, and have taken to answering “yes,” without paying attention, to every question the telemarketer asks, since it turns out to be the answer that makes the call go most quickly, without my having to actually interrupt them and hang up. It’s also an answer that requires no thought on my part, so I can perch the phone on my shoulder and say, “Yes, yes, yes, yes” while ignoring the questions I’m answering and focusing instead on whatever program I’m writing or whatever test I’m running. Am I general of the moon? Yes. Is my company in the market for a herd of zebras? Yes.