The phone call in the coffee shop: How NOT to point out bad tech etiquette

I was getting so much done. And then it happened.

cellphonesI was typing away at one of the long tables in the coffee shop, totally in the zone, a drained soy chai sitting next to my laptop. I heard a ringtone behind me. Then a woman picked up. “Hello?” she said. And she talked. And talked. And talked.

At first I just noticed. She’ll probably hang up soon, I thought. But she didn’t. After a while, I couldn’t think about anything else. My fingers froze over the keyboard as each word of her conversation took a slow, loud stroll through my brain.

“They think I’m so amusing,” she told her friend.

Well I don’t.

Now what do I do about it?

First, the long shot passive aggressive play. I turned around, spotted her blabbing by the window, shot her an annoyed look and turned back. She’d been gesturing with her arm, looking down at her table. She didn’t see me. They never do.

Then a search for allies. I scanned the cafe. Two people had headphones on. Did they have them on before? The top pocket of my backpack, slouched by my feet, held my own tangled ball of earbuds. But no. That would be giving in.

My column was smudges on a screen. The zone had packed up and left. The woman kept talking.

I was getting angry, and for good reason. A study published in March showed that hearing half of a conversation when someone speaks near you into a cell phone — a “halfalogue” — hijacks your brain, which can’t help but try to fill in the blanks. It’s one thing if you’re moving past it — you’re on a walk, or they are. But if you’re in line, or settled into a cozy spot at a coffee shop, you’re trapped.

I thought of a sign I spotted on a bus in San Jose last month:

Be a considerate commuter.

1. Speak softly when answering or making phone calls. Avoid ‘Cell Yell.’

2. Keep your calls brief.

3. Use text messaging.

Everyone benefits from a quieter, relaxing commute.

I’d noticed the sign while texting in my seat, fighting motion sickness as the bus lumbered toward the airport. No way we need signs like that for etiquette so obvious, I thought at the time. Really, who’s left who doesn’t already know how irritating loud, long cell phone calls can be?

Her.

Monica Guzman

Mónica Guzmán

She wasn’t the only cafe lounger to get on the phone that afternoon. Two others had made calls while I was there, but they’d kept their voices down and their calls to under two minutes. I’d noticed, and gone back to work.

I’d been privvy to this woman’s halfalogue long enough to guess that she was probably a nice person. I imagined getting up, walking to her table, tapping her on the shoulder — “Oh, hold on a minute,” she’d say into her phone — and asking her to please take her call outside. The direct approach. Difficult, but effective. It would solve the problem right then and there.

I couldn’t do it.

So I went to Twitter.

The sympathy flowed.

“Irritating!” said one person.

“Who does that?” tweeted another.

One person suggested I bring one of these next time. Another thought I should do this.

Then @warmdarn brought me back to reality.

I told her I’d wussed out.

Right about then the woman got up and walked away. Was she finally moving the call? Relief! But a minute later she was back. And so was her gabby friend.

I looked at my screen. It was asleep. This was hopeless. I should go home anyway, I told myself. It’ll be good to check on baby and the nanny. Plus I should water the plants.

It was BS and I knew it.

Maybe we don’t need signs to communicate basic tech etiquette to our fellow humans. We just need people brave enough to teach it.

That day, at least, that wasn’t me.

I stuffed my laptop and my notebook into the my backpack. Shooting the woman another useless look, I got up and left.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist, freelance journalist and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

Previously: Best coffee shops for work? Our 15 essential ingredients

Top photo by gumption, via Flickr.

  • MO

    Sorry, I don’t agree with your rant. While I do find “halfalogues” annoying sometimes, a cafe is a place where I expect people to talk,etc. Next time, go to the library if you need a quiet place to work. Otherwise, put on your big girl panties and wear some ear plugs. You should not be selfish to think that people need to walk on egg shells just because you are working in a public place. Advice: Learn some real etiquette.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I have to disagree. Loud cell phone calls are inconsiderate in static public places. You’re right that I don’t have a right to that air space; that’s why I left. But I do have an expectation that people be considerate. It is not unreasonable.

    • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

      Monica didn’t expect silence, just a respectable volume. That’s hardly “walking on eggshells”. Being in “public” doesn’t give one the right to boorishness.

  • pathetic

    The best place for women to yak yak yak gossip is in the coffee shop,
    Who is the BS now?

    • boop

      You have a point: Would it have been less annoying if her friend had been there and Monica had heard both sides of the conversation? Maybe less annoying in a way because nothing is worse than hearing half a conversation but the amount of sound would have been double.

      I have found coffee shops to not be the best place for productivity unfortunately. You’re very lucky if you can find a quiet, peaceful one. I guess that’s why people use earbuds.

  • Guest

    Someday, Monica, I hope you’ll be able to afford a coffeemaker for your own home or workplace. In the meantime, I’d appreciate if you stopped twhining* about when other people talk audibly in a public place.

    * A portmanteau of “Twitter” and “whining”

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I don’t mind when people talk to each other in coffee shops. If both people are there. When its half a conversation, and it’s loud, it’s annoying. People should be mindful of that.

      • Guest

        A coffee shop is a place for conversation. Because I am wealthy enough to afford a mobile phone, I am able to converse in more places than just my home. Your conversation with your laptop is exactly as appropriate as is my conversation with my mobile phone.

        In conclusion, Monica, please don’t tell me how to behave at a public coffee shop. It’s not your own space and, as such, you don’t get to set the rules.

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          In public spaces we ALL get to set the rules, as a collective. They’re not rules you get strictly punished for disobeying, but they are social pressures that keep you in line. There may not be enough consensus on this one to make it a generally accepted expectation. But you’d have to be a pretty unsocial person to think someone has to set strict “rules” for you to feel you have to behave within certain parameters.

          • lordofthegays

            A very reasonable and polite response to such an arrogant comment. :)

  • NoReally

    (TL:DR) Geekwire reporter has hipster first world problems, is passive aggressive about it and whines about it on the internet like a 12 year old on Reddit.

    • http://www.techmansworld.com/ Michael Hazell

      Lets put you in a coffee shop with a whining little kid right in front of your table. Let’s see how you like it.

  • Cory

    You were in a coffee shop. You have no right to the airspace. Use headphones or get your own office. Unless the coffee shop advertises itself as a shared workspace (somehow your $4 latte doesn’t add up to a desk in rent), get over it or go to the library.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I think it’s the other way around. If you’re going to make long, loud (read: disruptive) phone calls, you should do it in an office or in a coworking space, not in a coffee shop.

  • http://twitter.com/westseattleblog West Seattle Blog

    I’d give her the benefit of the doubt … she really might not have realized she was so loud. Since our business phone/breaking-news line is mobile, it tends to ring while we are in the grocery store, having lunch, etc., and while my co-publisher does his best to dash for the door as soon as that happens, in order not to take the call in close public quarters, if that’s not so easy, he’ll just answer, and sometimes I’ll have to gesture to him to tamp it down – he doesn’t realize the nearest wall is bouncing the sound back, magnified. (And if the caller is on a not-so-great connection, you can unintentionally find yourself speaking louder as if that will help.) The earbuds suggestion is a good one, though. – Tracy

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Yeah, I probably should’ve just gone with the earbuds even if it wasn’t my choice, per se. It’s nuts how loud you can be on a cell phone without even realizing it. You’re talking at what you think is a reasonable volume, but you’re not paying attention to the standard set by your physical surroundings, but by whoever you’re talking to on the phone. Calls pull you out of the physical context into another one. So yeah. You might have no clue if there’s a big mismatch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andru Andru Edwards

    You’ve gotta be prepared. Putting earbuds in is not giving in, it is taking are of yourself to maintain your comfort. Giving in it not addressing it with the person. For me, I don’t care what others do in a public place (when it comes to annoyance level I mean, and as long as it’s not illegal/harmful) – if I don’t like it, I need to do something about it. In this situation, it’s moving to a different table (if the place is big enough,) putting my headphones on, or talking to them about it :)

    Speaking of etiquette, though, what’s up with the rude commenters?

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Agreed. In this case, the place wasn’t big enough to move to a different table. I could have put in ear buds, but I don’t like wearing them and would’ve rather gone somewhere else. The most effective thing I could have done was talk to the person and ask her nicely if she could speak more quietly or move the call elsewhere. But as much as I can say it’s the best thing to do in the situation, it’s effing hard to actually do it.

  • http://jetcitydigital.com/ Ron Schott

    It’s kinda an evolution of what a coffee place is though, no? Or at least a difference in how people view them. Not long ago, coffee places were for meeting and taking with people and I’d bet they were much louder than now where people are huddled over their glowing screens (myself included).

    I pretty much figure I don’t have control over pretty much anyone in a public space, so I’d definitely be a proponent of just talking to someone if they’re doing something that’s annoying – chances ate they didn’t even consider that fact.

    Also find it funny that a post about etiquette would attract such comments from people that would probably be considered to have bad commenting etiquette! She’s entitled to an opinion and you to yours, but you can probably do it using your adult words.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I do wonder if – maybe – we get to a place where it’s totally fine to make phone calls from settings like coffee shops, just because everything’s becoming so mobile. Phone calls on planes may be next…

      • http://jetcitydigital.com/ Ron Schott

        You can use your phone on flights in a ton of APAC countries… though they discourage loud, lengthy convos.

        • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

          Yeah, I’ve seen. You’re just so trapped in an airplane seat. More than on a bus and way more than in a coffee shop. When in-flight cell phone calls reach the U.S. and people cross those invisible boundaries of expected etiquette, we’re going to get some very irritated passengers.

  • http://twitter.com/TheSavaged1 Dan Savage

    I try to always be aware of my surroundings, and if I answer a phone call in the presence of others I keep my conversation at a respectful volume.

  • Mj Drush

    I like to stand close to them and speak loudly into my cell phone, they get annoyed and usually flee. It get’s interesting when they are speaking a foreign language! I have yet to be confronted but I am sure it is coming.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Well who knows. It is Seattle, home of “Seattle Nice,” and the ubiquity of smartphones might mean that those of us who get irritated by these behaviors will have to accept it as a new reality. I certainly hope not.

  • Beth Anderson

    I am often too wussy to talk on the phone in a coffee shop, for the same reasons that I get nervous about taking a baby into a coffee shop – I get THE LOOK, and unlike the woman in your story, I would have slunk out, horrified, and felt bad for the rest of the day. But sometimes the only option for taking an important call is on the bus or in other captive audience situations – I always breathe a sigh of relief when I’m off the bus/out of the coffeeshop, etc.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I feel the same way. Which explains a few things. If you’re not afraid of people’s reaction to your taking a loud long phone call, you’re not going to expect other people to refrain from taking loud long phone calls. P.S. – I pick up the phone if it seems important. If it’s going to last longer than a minute, or the coffee shop is super quiet, I take the call outside.

  • http://twitter.com/TheMaryJesse Mary Jesse

    While I admit that I too have been annoyed by such calls in the past, I have also been annoyed by in-person conversations. I don’t think there is a difference and mobiles are getting a biased rap here. Coffee shops, street corners and other public places are public and people have the right to have conversations. However, regardless of how or with whom, there is a decibel limit to what might be polite, I agree. Life is full of experiences like this and my view is that the more we give each other a break, the less stressed everyone will be.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      There really is a difference, though, in the way dialogues and “halfalogues” are heard by people around you. This article sums it um nicely: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/13/study-adds-to-evidence-of-cellphone-distraction/

      • http://twitter.com/TheMaryJesse Mary Jesse

        That is really interesting Monica. I hadn’t seen that research, but am loyal to scientific data. I would like to see if other “halfalogues” without cell phones cause the same disruption, i.e. remove the cell phone bias. I suspect they do for the “brainy” reasons cited. Love learning new things. Thanks!

  • Colin

    On an old school land-line phone, you can hear yourself speaking at low volume through the speaker. That’s because some studies were done many years ago that showed that people tend to (unconsciously) speak more quietly on phones if they can hear themselves.

    Mobile phones aren’t designed that way. I know of no technical reason for that. it’s just a feature the phone companies have never implemented.

    I’ve often cursed whoever made that design decision.

    (I completely agree that people should be considerate of others when talking on a cell phone call. It’s a coffee shop, not your living room. No one else cares about your hot deal, or hot date, or cold spouse.)

  • boop

    You think your experience was annoying? Try being productive on the 11th floor of the Central Library in Seattle where people are *supposed* to not use their cell phones, not talk amongst themselves or eat (!), but do in fact, treat the 11th floor of the Central Library as though it’s their living room. My guess is most of them don’t have a living room.

  • TW

    According to Monica’s “Best Coffee Shops for Work” article in 2011, ‘eavesdroppable conversations’ is a plus when it comes to the character of a “workable” coffee shop. So what changed?

    http://www.geekwire.com/2011/best-coffee-shops-for-working-15-things-to-look-for/

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Nothing. Cell phone conversations are by their nature not eavesdroppable.

    • http://twitter.com/questionsall Carl Setzer

      It’s one thing to overhear a conversation, and quite another to have one yelled in close proximity.

  • Tassoula

    I completely

  • Tassoula

    I completely agree with Monica – a coffee shop is fine with in-person conversations at respectful levels taking place, but I’ve had it with loud people on their cell phones.

    If you’re in McDonald’s I could care less if you’re shouting at your boyfriend or kids, but in a coffee shop, at least lower your voice. It’s not only disruptive to those who are working; it’s disrespectful to those who are just there to enjoy their coffee.

    • theduck

      I’m sorry, but while I agree with the idea of speaking at a reasonable volume in public, a coffee shop is not your office, and I don’t feel I should have to worry about your “work environment”. I will be courteous because it’s the right thing to do, but if you can’t handle distractions don’t work in public.

  • Shelley

    As a fellow writer, I completely understand your frustration. But that aside, I just think people need to be more polite when talking on the phone. I’m actually a loud talker (and we all know who we are), so I make an EXTRA effort to be cognizant of my surroundings when using my cell. It’s just common courtesy no matter who you are, what you do, or where you are. Thanks for the entertaining (and relevant) account of your experience. I think it serves as a good reminder – even if some people don’t necessarily agree with you.

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    I’ll put my vote in in support of your points.

    A short conversation at reasonable volume is understandable.

    A long conversation, loudly carried on in the middle a public space is rude in my book.

    Even if it’s a place where people converse like a coffee shop, a phone conversation is materially different. They’re typically louder and there’s the point about only half being more distracting.

    I had a similar situation in the wine bar at SeaTac a few years ago. While waiting for a flight there was a woman two full seating areas away who was on her phone loudly for the entire time (take cell phone loudness and add tipsy from two flights of wine to it).

    I got to hear everything she thought about her coworkers, her birthday plans, her drunken revelries. It was so loud and distracting that after one glass I told the waiter I wasn’t interested in food because of the loud conversation.

    When they brought me the check I suggested that they ban phones as things like this cost them business (myself as the example). They shrugged and said they couldn’t do anything about it. You could tell they were frustrated too.

    What I did is on my way out, as I passed her, I stopped, leaned over so I was in her personal space (getting her attention finally) and just told her “You’re an incredibly rude person” and left.

    Did it stop her? Don’t know. But I felt better for saying something. And my feeling is if someone is going to be rude and violate my space, I have no problems doing the same in return.

    • http://www.techmansworld.com/ Michael Hazell

      I’m glad you stood up for yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/TroyJMorris Troy Morris

    I have mixed thoughts on this. With the way technology has and continues to progress– into mobility– it’s something we’re all going to have to adjust to. Especially in a city where it’s not quite simple to just walk outside (hello, Rain!).

    But, halfalogues are the worst because your brain cannot handle the partial information flow. Brains are notorious for gap filling and it’s never stronger than in something unpatterned.

    That being said, I cannot focus or parse multiple ambient conversations, so unless everyone in the coffee shop but one party is conversing, my mind explodes and I need the headphones on anyways, so perhaps I’m not the best barometer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eugenio.rios Eugenio Garza Rios

    So… I kind of agree with both sides… It IS inconsiderate to “cell yell” and a lack of etiquette, while a coffee shop is NO PLACE for etiquette, I mean, you can wear shorts to a coffee shop.

    My advice, when that happens, drop your work, listen to her conversation, and make up a story about it… you could find amusing results when writing on someone else’s shoes.

    Make the best of the worst in others and you will also find their treasures hidden within, waiting for you.

    g’luck, cus!!

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Interesting take, Eugenio. I probably could have written a pretty funky short story from the woman’s halfalogue. Imagine that as a compilation: Overheard Halfalogues: Filling the Blanks. Book idea? ;)

  • Blah

    I did a long call from a coffee shop early in the morning once. I was clearly talking really loud, without really realizing it. A customer in the store chewed me out when I was done. Initially I was really pissed at her, but then I became more annoyed at myself and embarrassed.

    Since then I try to minimize calls in coffee shops and call someone back when I step out. While no one has a right to a quiet coffee shop and I think it is unreasonable to expect a coffee shop to be quiet enough to do real work in, I figure a loud cell phone talker on a long call is about as disruptive as it gets so I try to do my part. Oddly, I find it less disruptive to have a table of people all talking loudly than a cell phone call. Perhaps because the table’s noise becomes like white noise to me while the one way nature of a cell phone call means it goes away and then comes back.

  • KoreyAusTex

    It’s a public business, not your study hall or office. This is starting to get ridiculous, if you need quiet go to your home, office or a library. Are you going to start getting mad at people that go meet for a cup of coffee and talk too? I would probably tell you to kiss my ass.

    • boop

      I agree. We live on an increasingly crowded planet, thanks to people who don’t think twice about reproducing. If you really want a quiet place to work (or conversely a place where your conversation won’t be overheard), try your own kitchen. Oh, and the coffee there is waaaayyy cheaper.

  • http://www.facebook.com/portersi John Porter Simons

    In the end, it’s the cafe who decides what kind of environment they want for themselves. Many coffee shops have “no cell phone” signs, for example Cafe Pedlar in Brooklyn does. If it were me, I’d try to get the staff on my side before confronting the broad. Or go to a cafe who doesn’t run their space like a free-for-all zoo.

    • boop

      I would actually strongly encourage Monica, should she find herself in this situation again, to “confront the broad.” By having an actual human interaction, she may learn this demonized fellow coffee-shop patron is simply a hapless Person from Porlock who probably didn’t realize she was talking so loudly or had some other extenuating circumstance for having a phone conversation in such a public place. How was she to know Monica was “in the zone”–doubtless creating a masterpiece?

  • http://twitter.com/TheCoffice The Coffice™

    It’s been 17 hours since the last comment on this. Please excuse this one if it’s repetitive.

    The first thing is this: coffee shops are businesses. They sell stuff to people who want to purchase what they’re selling. In this case it’s coffee and other food and beverages. The person who sets the rules or tone or etiquette is the one who owns or manages or runs the establishment.

    If a customer was doing something in that coffee shop that infringed on the ability of others to enjoy the space, the person to speak to would be the people who work there. I’m certain it’s happened. Not everyone is respectful of their surroundings; not everyone realizes they’re being disrespectful. It’s annoying.

    Monica: I sympathize and empathize. We all do. Whether it’s the loud cell conversation, the screeching toddler, a boisterous chess game, or a raucous political debate, it’s a pain in the butt. But the only solutions to this problem can come from you. Contrary to your assertion, earbuds/headphones are the best solution to block out halfalogues keeping you from the zone. Or you could move to another coffee shop.

    I agree with you about needing to raise awareness about certain etiquette and behaviour. I think it’s more than just about the phone in your hand or the tablet in your lap. It’s about understanding where you are and with whom.

    I think, Monica, you should always expect to need your earbuds at some point during your work time at a coffee shop. I have 2 or 3 pairs with me all the time.

    If you can’t listen to music for whatever reason, you may be interested in checking out this site: http://coffitivity.com. I’m a fan.

    • KoreyAusTex

      Again, if you need quiet go to your home, office or library because a coffee shop is a place where people go to get coffee, it isn’t a library or your personal space to dictate the behavior of others. Now if people are yelling at the top of their lungs I can understand that but short of that too bad. If the coffee shop sides with the people that want to treat it as their own personal zen garden that is fine but know you are as inconsiderate as the loud talking person because you act as though you are entitled.

  • MJW

    I totally agree with Monica. A coffee shop is a semi-public space, and for the sake of civility, occupants should consider those around them – by not speaking, reaching, stinking, spitting etc. beyond some socially acceptable limits. It’s part of “minding your manners.” I suspect the vast majority would agree that this is a good thing and that not doing so leads to a less pleasant existence. I also suspect that the combination of poor cell phone audio and compelling conversation causes most gabbers to simply forget their manners. Given this, I suggest (1) a STFU voice prompt triggered by the delta between ambient and spoken volumes or (2) same prompt, but triggered and paid for by those around the gabber who alert and send their location to the phone company via an app. There are some technology hurdles (different carriers, sending the prompt to the correct gabber) but there may be a compelling business case. I’d certainly pay $1 for some peace, You?

  • Rann Xeroxx

    I always take my headphones and run one of those ambient sound apps. All I hear are babbling brooks and chimes :)

  • http://www.techmansworld.com/ Michael Hazell

    I would have been more aggressive, by either asking the person directly or telling a worker at the place to do something. Maybe the coffee shop should have lost your business and maybe they might even add a sign about it.