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Wednesday, September 13, 2006



They don't put pay phones in the stacks at public libraries.

The phone at right, for example, is in the parking garage beneath the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Talk as loud as you want on this one, nobody in the genealogy, or economics sections is going to hear you.

Put a phone like this between the library stacks, however, and you can imagine the complaints. Editorials would ridicule such a move as patently lunatic, reminding all readers that library silence is a rule at least as old as "cover your mouth when you yawn."

And yet, few of my fellow library patrons seemed surprised Sunday when a woman began to carry on a cell phone conversation at full cell-yell volume in the literature and fiction section on the third floor of the Central Library. Although the woman spoke for more than five minutes at this audible level, not a single "sssshhh" was uttered by those around me. Most people just ducked their heads deeper into their books.

The prevalence of rudeness in our society is nothing new. Stories and studies about it have appeared in US newspapers with increasing frequency during the past few years. The results don't seem to change, but the reporting may be taking a turn.

More and more, stories about rudeness are addressing people's reluctance to confront it.

CBS News produced a hidden-camera report this past week that examined public reactions to rudeness. The gist of the video was that people often walk away rather than speak up. Some told CBS they were not willing to take the risk, although none explained what exactly they feared might happen as a result.

CNN did a story last year in which a theory about this was offered:
[Lew Friedland, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison] … said the public has yet to reach its limit for tolerating cell phone abuse. He sees people more or less resigned to it.

"It's like swatting at mosquitoes essentially," he said. "You can get one or two, but if there's a swarm of them around you, you just kind of give up or get out of the way. I think cell phones' use in public spaces is partly having the same kind of effect."
Cell phones have been an issue for the LA city librarian since at least 2002 when, according to Board of Library Commissioners meeting minutes, she said she "wouldn’t want to place the staff in a position of confrontation with the public over the use of cell phones." (The matter has since been addressed in the library Rules of Conduct).

Some phone companies, including AT&T and Sprint, provide etiquette advice, but the suggestions are so obvious that they're on a par with reminding an adult not to chew with an open mouth in public. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere there's restaurant with that posted next to the "no smoking" sign.

— TJ Sullivan
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