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The Ethicist
February 8, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

When Can I Tell a Cellphone User to Just Be Quiet?

On a noisy $10 interstate bus, the woman behind me spent the entire four hours on her cellphone telling the same story—in a loud, nasal voice—to five different people. I wanted to ask her to stop, but I didn't know if I should—especially considering the cheap fare. What should I have done?

YOU SHOULD HAVE GRABBED HER PHONE and pummeled her with it mercilessly. No, no, you can't do that. You should simply have grabbed her phone and thrown it out the window.

OK, not that either.

Cellphones are a relatively new technology, and the etiquette surrounding their use is still evolving. Here's my guideline: Don't impose your cellphone conversation on people confined in a closed space—a bus, a restaurant, a train. If your talking prevents those trapped nearby from reading or working or simply thinking their own thoughts, then cut it out.

You correctly suggest that different social settings permit different behavior. I can't ask everyone at a football game to pipe down so I can read my book. And there are different expectations at McDonald's than at a fancy restaurant. Courtesy, however, is not reserved for the wealthy: Even folks who ride the bargain bus are entitled to consideration.

You had every right to ask this passenger to curb her chatter, but it's not likely she would have complied. The bus driver, who commands authority that passengers lack, might have had more success. Alternatively, I propose this federal law: Unless your cellphone conversation is amusing or intriguing, you must shut up.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, February 8, 2010)