In Search of Civility

Q: My question is about the use (or misuse) of cell phones. I am especially disgusted by people who talk on their cell phones while checking out at the grocery store or while ordering food at a counter. For one thing, it is insulting and condescending to the clerk or restaurant server. For another thing, it holds up the line for the rest of us waiting to be served. What can I do, as a single individual, about this rude behavior?

A: I’m sure you know that your disgust about the misuse of cell phones is shared by most, if not all of us who have ever set foot in a public place in the last 15 years. I could go on at length myself, but doing so is the easy (and well, surprisingly satisfying) part. The difficult part is to believe that you can do anything about the degree of civility in our public spaces beyond remaining civil yourself.

The uncomfortable truth is that we must act if we wish to reclaim civility in public spaces. In fact, the responsibility to act is addressed as one of the nine tools of civility – giving and receiving criticism. So, thank you for your question. But how…?

To act individually in the moment is risky. In the public arena, there is a fine line between minding your own business and considering someone else’s behavior your business. Most people I know do not take well to being challenged in any way by a stranger. There are plenty, if not most, cell phone situations in which doing nothing in the moment is the better part of wisdom.

Doing nothing in the moment applies when you decide that addressing the issue would be more disruptive than the act itself; when you need more time and privacy then you have; when the situation and person(s) are volatile and you could put yourself or others in danger; and when you are concerned about your own ability to stay civil. Approaching people you know is unpredictable enough, but approaching a stranger is really an unknown.

That said, I know more than one devoted civility advocate who has become skilled at discerning appropriate situations and discreetly (key word) handing out the civility project business card to strangers and saying something like, “I couldn’t help but wonder if you are aware of the effect your cell phone conversation had on all the people around you. Here is a card that might help make a difference next time.” Sometimes he just hands out the card, says almost nothing, letting the situation speak for itself, and walks away. (Door County Civility Project business cards are available at the office of the Door County Community Foundation, 342 Louisiana St., Sturgeon Bay.)

An approach that carries less risk and indeed, results in greater social change, is to encourage, even pressure public places to adopt policies about cell phone use. Sad but true: new technologies require new rules. Go to the management of the grocery store or the fast food restaurant and suggest instituting cell phone policies. Signage at the checkout counter would allow employees to simply point out the policy.

Even without an explicit policy, one pharmacy, for example, has instructed its employees to wait for patrons to end their call before turning their attention to them.

Do not be a lone vigilante, but rather an advocate. Let your disgust about uncivil cell phone use be a call to action for yourself. Get involved with the Door County Civility Project; sign the civility pledge. Create your own personal and family rules about cell phone use. Use your influence where it will make a difference. Let the ripple effect work its way into the greater society.

Do you have a question about civility? Send to [email protected]. To learn more about the Door County Civility Project and sign the civility pledge, visit