'Hell Is Other People'

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I waited for August to write this column because I wanted to give July a chance. But July has failed.

As I'm sure every reader knows, July was National Cell Phone Courtesy Month. I am here to tell you that it was a flop. Having just completed an in depth, scientific bicoastal survey occasioned by a quick business trip to Los Angeles and then back to Washington, cell manners remain the number one social disease in America today.

I can report to you that the young Asian woman in 22C "so cannot believe that Kim did not come with you guys to pick me up." The lady at Gate D5 did not want her friend to call that afternoon when she landed because she was going to take a nap but maybe they would have dinner later. The portly businessman on the people mover bus at Dulles airport told someone that he needed "my assistant" to go through his phone messages and e-mail them to him so they would be in his Blackberry when he landed. (Ever notice how many loud cell phone talkers have assistants?)

I know these things because cell phones somehow make people think they have privacy in public. Or it's actually worse: they don't care about their own privacy and even more deeply don't care about the privacy of others who they passive-aggressively force to inhale their secondhand chat.

Random details from other people's lives invade our consciousness in public space: battles with psoriasis, bad dates, incompetent cleaning ladies and all sorts of business deals.

The incessant "checking in" and "touching base" is what led the excellent technology writer Christine Rosen, when discussing wireless phones, to quote novelist and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: "Hell is other people." That Frenchman wouldn't be able to hack it in a Gap for ten minutes; the mall rats would kill him. (Note to self: send 'Sartre goes to the mall' skit idea to someone at "Saturday Night Live.")

A national survey by Sprint last summer found that 80 percent of those surveyed thought cell phone manners had gotten worse in the past five years; and 97 percent said they personally use good cell phone manners. There you have it.