Surprise: Loud cell talkers drive us crazy

An Intel survey reveals outlandish user behavior on phones and laptops. How will the rest of us get any peace?

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Where is the line when it comes to appropriate cell phone behavior? Is it ok to talk in a crowded restaurant? An elevator? How about interrupting an actual, you know, face-to-face conversation to answer a call?

Then there's non-voice communications: Is it acceptable to walk while emailing, bumping into people on the sidewalk en route? Texting at the urinal: It's potentially messy and definitely gross, but is it acceptable? Is it rude to keep reaching into your pocket whenever your BlackBerry buzzes?

Technology may advance according to Moore's Law, but the way we incorporate gadgets into our lives progresses in fits and starts. Cell phones have progressed from novelty to ubiquity in two short decades, and that ubiquity has begotten a cacophony of voices, buzzes, blips, and blings. Meanwhile, we're still feeling our way around the associated social norms and mores. What we need is a bill of rights, a list of commandments to help us all get along in peace.

If a recent survey by Intel (INTC, Fortune 500) is any guide, the first commandment of cell phone behavior would be "Thou shalt not use text or email while driving."

According to a poll conducted for the company by Harris Interactive, more than 90% of us are frustrated with how our neighbors use their phones. Almost three quarters of the 2,000 people surveyed said they were most annoyed by people who text or email while driving. More than 60% said people talk too loudly in public. More than half have been annoyed by people on phones in restaurants, and close to half felt the same way about what transpires in movie theaters.

Forty one percent mentioned use of phones in grocery stores as a pet peeve, and 26% were grossed out by others who talk and text in public restrooms. (Interestingly, only 38% of respondents admitted to having any annoying cell phone habits of their own.)

Intel consumer education manager Becky Emmett says the issue is hardly limited to cell phones and smartphones. With widely available Wi-Fi, laptop behavior is equally horrifying.

"People talked about being in a public place and having people listening to a movie or video without using headphones. Some people were watching adult entertainment. We've all seen these kinds of things," says Emmett. "What I learned was that technology adoption happens much faster than social etiquette adoption. We get these devices, they're thrown out in the world, and it's trial and error until we come to the place where cultural norms will be."

What's Intel doing conducting a survey about social mores? Emmett says the company wants to be part of the conversation about technology, and so it's important to stay plugged into how people feel about the encroachment of devices into their lives. But it's equally important to understand how new technologies are being used.

For her part, Emmett thinks that we as a society are setting boundaries organically, and eventually, the annoying habits will subside. "If you look at cell phones, when they first came out, people were really appropriate with them, talking on them very privately, as though they were having a conversation in their home. Now, everyone has a phone and we're at the peak of inappropriateness," she says.

"But it's like a pack mentality," she adds. "Dogs will correct the bad behavior of other dogs who are out of line. Maybe we're at that point now where we are at bottom. It all just takes some time to get used to. I think we'll catch up."

Let's hope. To top of page

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