But just because the problem is familiar to us now doesn’t mean steam stops issuing from the ears of drivers trapped behind a guy chatting on his phone in a passing lane and staying perfectly abreast of a vehicle in the slow lane. And yet: everything in our commercial culture tells the chatty driver that he is in the right and tells everybody else that we are in the wrong–that we are failing to get with the attractively priced program of freedom and mobility and unlimited minutes. Commercial culture tells us that if we’re sore with the chatty driver it must be because we’re not having as good a time as he is. What is wrong with us, anyway? Why can’t we lighten up a little and take out our own phones, with our own Friends and Family plans, and start having a better time ourselves, right there in the passing lane?
Socially retarded people don’t suddenly start acting more adult when social critics are peer-pressured into silence. They only get ruder. One currently worsening national plague is the shopper who remains engrossed in a call throughout a transaction with a checkout clerk. The typical combination in my own neighborhood, in Manhattan, involves a young white woman, recently graduated from someplace expensive, and a local black or Hispanic woman of roughly the same age but fewer advantages. It is, of course, a liberal vanity to expect your checkout clerk to interact with you or to appreciate the scrupulousness of your determination to interact with her. Given the repetitive and low-paying nature of her job, she’s allowed to treat you with boredom or indifference; at worst, it’s unprofessional of her. But this does not relieve you of your own moral obligation to acknowledge her existence as a person. And while it’s true that some clerks don’t seem to mind being ignored, a notably large percentage do become visibly irritated or angered or saddened when a customer is unable to tear herself off her phone for even two seconds of direct interaction. Needless to say, the offender herself, like the chatty freeway driver, is blissfully unaware of pissing anybody off. In my experience, the longer the line behind her, the more likely it is she’ll pay for her $1.98 purchase with a credit card. And not the tap-and-go microchip kind of credit card, either, but the wait-for-the-printed-receipt-and-then-(only then)-with-zombiesh-clumsiness-begin-shifting-the-cell-phone-from-one-ear-to-the-other-and-awkwardly-pin-the-phone-with-ear-to-shoulder-while-signing-the-receipt-and-continuing-to-express-doubt-about-whether-she-really-feels-like-meeting-up-with-that-Morgan-Stanley-guy-Zachary-at-the-Etats-Unis-wine-bar-again-tonight kind of credit card.
There is, to be sure, one positive social consequence of these worsening misbehaviors. The abstract notion of civilized public spaces, as rare resources worth defending, may be all but dead, but there’s still consolation to be found in the momentary ad hoc microcommunities of fellow sufferers that bad behaviors create. To look out your car window and see the steam coming out of another driver’s ears, or to meet the eyes of a pissed-off checkout clerk and to shake your head along with her: it makes you feel a little less alone.
Which is why, of all the worsening varieties of bad cell-phone behavior, the one that most deeply irritates me is the one that seems, because it is ostensibly victimless, to irritate nobody else. I’m talking about the habit, uncommon 10 years ago, now ubiquitous, of ending cell-phone conversations by braying the words “LOVE YOU!” Or, even more oppressive and grating: “I LOVE YOU!” It makes me want to go and live in China, where I don’t understand the language. It makes me want to scream.