Coming to accept cell phones, with a sigh

Once upon a fairly recent time, the prevalence of cellular phones annoyed and offended me. I shuddered to see people taking calls in the library, leaving phones on during class and chatting as they walked down the street, ignoring the real world around them and retreating to a different, far-away land, a land of beeps and vibrations, of wireless signals and charged batteries. All this seemed very wrong, as if the world were pointing, laughing and shouting, “You are less important to me than this call! I don’t have time for you!”

In a way, I was right. When we answer our phones in the presence of others, we are saying the call is more important. We’re making a decision about the moment, prioritizing the call over our immediate surroundings. But there isn’t really any pointing and laughing. Cell-phone use and abuse in these times is, at best, a valuable tool and, at worst, a demonstration of carelessness.

Since the introduction of cell phones into the mainstream about a decade ago, the choice of taking a call or not has become a legitimate one. It’s rude to be careless with phones — to leave them on during class by accident, or to carry on long conversations while someone else is sitting right in front of you. These acts happen too often and deserve discouragement. But is it always wrong to answer a call in the middle of a conversation? Are there circumstances that permit leaving your phone on during class? Sure, somebody might be offended — but of all the offensive things people do, does taking an important phone call rank at the top?

Just a few years ago, when I was a new cell phone user, I would have said yes. In those days, I couldn’t bear to even walk down the street on the phone. I was too nervous that I would run into someone I knew and seem rude not to say hello, too worried that the very message I was sending to the world — that I chose to ignore it in favor of this funny little device — was too horrendous to risk. I expected no less from others. When a professor would chuckle to hear a phone ringing in his class, or when someone would get up to take a call while studying in a library, I would cringe and seethe.

Ever so quickly, times have changed, and so have I. It has become impossible to imagine our world without cell phones. Once upon a time, we made plans in advance and relied on answering machines and knowledge of friends’ schedules to track each other down. Now, everything is easy, no memory required. Cell phones have come of age right along with our generation; we remember the past without them, but we can only imagine a future dependent upon them. We are at once the last humans for whom this form of communication seems strange, and the first for whom it seems necessary and natural.

Indeed, cell phones have become legitimate players in social interactions. No longer is it necessarily rude to answer or talk on the phone in public, even in the company of others. Sometimes you have to take a call; we all understand that because we’ve all done it. Sometimes — say, you’re waiting to hear about a job interview — it’s worse not to answer it. In such cases, the person at the other end of the line is just as much a part of your real world as the person standing beside you.

In life, there come times when we have to juggle social commitments and loyalties, to attend to one relationship at the expense of another. Living in the adult world today means developing social skills that address the new conflict between instantaneous electronic communication and the old ways. We can’t abuse our cell phones and the fancier gadgets that they have spawned. We can’t allow them to consume us, to distract us unnecessarily. We must prioritize carefully. But we have to use these things, if only because we are overwhelmingly expected to.

Part of me still cringes when people talk on the phone at the table — there’s something about the ritual of eating together that, I think, makes it the most sacred of social interactions — and deep in my heart I wish that we didn’t really need cell phones to survive. But, though my heart resists, my mind accepts and, oh, all right, embraces the developments in technology that have allowed us to communicate so efficiently.

Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.