The other evening I was waiting in line in a cafeteria, and the woman ahead of me, who was rather short, was reading her phone. A few years ago, the phrase "reading her phone" would have ranked as nonsense, but nowadays when most mobile phones seem to do everything a desktop computer used to do, only faster, reading your phone has become a humdrum, routine part of life. Anyway, she was flipping through what looked like either twitters or Facebook comments, and I, being a compulsive reader of anything in my field of vision, began to read along with her. The content was nothing remarkable—little notes from friends about what other friends were doing, pictures of small children (grandchildren?), comments about an upcoming wedding—I frankly forgot nearly all of what I saw a few minutes after I saw it. What stuck with me was a question: what exactly was I doing in reading that lady's phone over her shoulder? What would you call it? And does the fact that you can do something like that have any larger implications?
I don't need a Ph. D. in moral philosophy (which I don't have anyway) to know that it was wrong to read somebody else's private messages, from whatever source derived. Nowadays, of course, they may not really be private. On Facebook and personal blogs and so on, people make public all sorts of matters that earlier generations would have buried deep inside a locked diary. But the presumption is that the content of a person's own phone is, well, personal and private. And it was not right for me to read her mail, so to speak. I watched an old movie the other night which had a plot that turned on the theft of a letter—a theft that was noted by a landlady, who called the cops and brought the whole criminal scheme tumbling down thereby. Stealing a letter is an overt, easily documented act. But just looking over somebody's shoulder in a cafeteria line—who can tell what you're seeing?
The closest word I can think of that means something like what I did is "eavesdropping," but that involves hearing, not seeing. "Eyedropping" won't work—it sounds like what goes on in an opthalmologist's office. "Spying" would cover it, but I didn't go to the cafeteria with the intention of snooping on somebody else's phone messages. I just happened to be standing where, without any real effort or intention on my part, I was able to read private material. The parallel between that and a situation where you are in a restaurant booth and can't help overhearing conversations in the next booth is pretty exact.
Whatever it should be called, it's something that happens more and more often as people with portable electronic communications devices take over public spaces in subtle but significant ways. What about those folks who have either an ear-mounted phone, or one of those little earbud-cord microphones that you have to look closely to see? They're the same ones who conduct one-sided phone conversations in hallways or sidewalks at normal volume, so that at a distance they give every appearance of talking with an invisible companion, which leads one to doubt their sanity until you get close enough to see the electronics they're talking to. We don't mind people having normal conversations in public when both parties are right there, so why should we mind if one of the participants happens to be at the other end of an electronic link? I'm not sure, except that sometimes people talk about things over the phone that they wouldn't mention in a public place. And if they're doing it over a mobile phone, they sometimes tend to forget their surroundings, and passersby end up privy to TMI (too much information). This is just as discourteous as what I did to the lady in front of me in the cafeteria line, but it's discourtesy of a different type.
The real problem, I think, is that the boundary between public and private is getting really fuzzy, and you can get into trouble if you mix up the two. Saying, "I'd like to kill you!" out in a field where only you and your listener can hear you is one thing. It may be a serious threat, or it may be nothing more than a joke between well-acquainted friends. But saying the same thing on Facebook or another internet-mediated forum can land you in jail.
Here are two pieces of advice, one for users of technologies that tend to make the private public, and the other for bystanders who end up hearing or seeing something that the user didn't intend for you to hear or see. For users, try to realize that while you may be focused just on your friends you are chatting with, the medium you are using is full of holes that leak information to casual passersby—people just browsing the sidewalk or the web, and even folks you may be trying to keep a secret from. So use some discretion in what you look at or say. If you wouldn't want to hear someone else saying what you're saying, don't say it, or at least wait for a more private circumstance than looking at your phone while waiting in line or talking through your earbud mike at a crowded bus stop.
And for bystanders, I would say that while sometimes you really can't help overhearing or "overseeing" someone's private information, you can help what you do with it. If you can read somebody else's email over a shoulder, well, quit it. If you can hear somebody's private conversation, maybe move to a chair where you can't. And otherwise, try to be nice even to thoughtless or nasty people. To some folks, old-fashioned courtesies such as beginning a letter with "Dear" look hypocritical: if you aren't really dear to me, why should I address you that way? But courtesy is the social lubricant that you don't wake up the next day with a hangover from. It makes life easier and more pleasant for all of us, and while it has aspects of hypocrisy, I like to think of it as more like clean, well-tailored clothing that covers a less-than-presentable body. And come to think of it, that's something else that is out of fashion, and maybe for the same reason. But just as there is good taste in clothing, there is good taste in the use of mobile phones, and here's hoping more people use them more tastefully.
Sources: After I wrote this blog, I found a website that makes most of my points and more, and with pictures. It's "How to Practice Cell Phone Etiquette" at http://www.wikihow.com/Practice-Cell-Phone-Etiquette. Highly recommended.