illustration: MICHEL LAROSE
published in the National Post, March 20, 1999
By Bill Rogers
Let me share with you one of the more annoying experiences of my adult life: I was walking down the street one evening, down one of those quiet tree-lined neighbourhood streets, when from behind me I heard a young man's voice. The voice said: "Seems like you could use a drink."
That was odd, I thought to myself. The young man was 10 paces behind me. I had no idea who he was. How did he know I could use a drink?
Turned out he was right -- and I had to admire him for that -- but what business was it of his?
He continued: "Perhaps we could meet at such-and-such tavern."
That was shockingly forward of him. What the hell was going on? I looked back over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of this irritating urban interloper. Suddenly everything made sense -- he was talking to someone on a cellphone.
It was damned annoying. And ever since that incident, I've taken in several mobile-phone soliloquy performances.
The typical pattern is: You hear a voice close by, and your first instinct is that a total stranger is addressing you. But it's not until you see the small antenna protruding from the stranger's head that you realize it's not you they're talking to at all.
No, they've got more important people to talk to, people you can't see or hear.
This a clear breach of civil etiquette -- wandering around in public, conversing casually and robustly with unseen others, while remaining oblivious to the people standing within earshot.
Happily, there is a way to fight back. When one of these insane public monologues intrudes upon your consciousness, engage with it. Participate in it. And be free with yourself. I tried it recently:
Soliloquist (out of the blue): "I'm standing in the lobby at Bay and Bloor."
Me: "Yes, it's quite a lobby, isn't it?"
Soliloquist: "You can pick me up at the corner, then we'll go for lunch."
Me: "I'm not sure I can lift you, but I'll give it a try. Where do you want to eat?"
Soliloquist: "I'm sorry, there's some psycho talking to himself here. . ."
Me (in a louder voice): "I said I'm not sure I can lift you. How much do you weigh exactly?"
Soliloquist: "Hang on a second. . . (turns to me) Sir, would you mind? I'm trying to have a conversation."
Me: "So am I, but you're not making sense."
Soliloquist: "I'm not talking to you."
Me: "Well as a matter of fact, you are. But you're not making sense. What's wrong with you?"
Soliloquist: "Sir, I suggest you seek treatment."
Me: "No, you seek treatment."
This approach may seem confrontational, and a tad embarrassing. But it will get your point across.
Cellphones have undermined our very notion of human conversation. No doubt you have witnessed the bizarre restaurant spectacle involving four people, four different phones, and four different conversations -- none involving anyone else at the table. You wonder who's at the other end of these talks. Are they ignoring a different set of companions in some other restaurant? And if so, wouldn't it have been easier for each of them to go to dinner with the people they really wanted to talk to?
And another thing -- much has been made about the issue of mobile phone privacy. In their advertisements, some companies boast that their system is the most secure against eavesdropping. "Scrambling" and "encryption" have become buzzwords. Perhaps another should be added to that list: "Shut the f--- up."
After all, what's the use of encryption technology when the mobile phone customer himself is blabbing at the top of his lungs?
Unlike traditional dramatic forms, these impromptu public performances incorporate the element of surprise. You don't need a ticket; they happen spontaneously, free of charge and artistic merit.
In the end, at least some blame must be laid at the foot of the phone companies. They have given people the tools of the stage, yet they fail to supply any stage direction or theatrical coaching. At the very least, mobile phone companies should provide the services of someone schooled in dramaturgy, or at least a decent director, under whom each customer would study for a minimum of one week.
With such a system, the basics of voice coaching, and the importance of gesture and narrative tension could be imparted. True, the rest of us would still be forced to witness unwanted street spectacle, but at least the artistic merit of the stuff would improve. Either that, or mobile phone customers could keep their damn voices down and stop spewing third-rate plots and lousy acting on to an innocent public.