[Paleopsych] NYT: Reach Out and Touch No One
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Sat Apr 16 22:03:35 UTC 2005
Fashion & Style > Thursday Styles > Reach Out and Touch No One
April 14, 2005
[The Times has ditched its separate Thursday Circuit section, though a
reduced form of it appears in the Business section (groan button) and has
added a separate Thursday Styles section, which is a fond of human
By AMY HARMON
THE cashier had already rung up Keri Wooster's items when Ms. Wooster
realized she didn't have her wallet. She dashed to her car and
returned empty-handed to face the line of fidgeting customers she had
kept waiting, a cellphone pressed to her ear. "Jordan, did you take my
wallet out of my purse?" she asked in parental exasperation, as she
made her way back to the checkout counter. "I'm holding up this line!
You need to put things back where you find them."
Ms. Wooster, who has no children, was not actually talking to a
Jordan, or indeed to anyone at all. But her monologue served its
purpose, eliciting sympathetic looks from the frustrated crowd at her
"My instincts just took over," Ms Wooster, 28, who lives in Houston,
said later. "Everyone was like, 'Oh, kids.' "
Ms. Wooster is by no means alone in the practice of cellphone
subterfuge. As cellular phone conversations have permeated public
space, so, it seems, have fake cellular phone conversations.
How many? It is hard to say. But James E. Katz, a professor of
communication at Rutgers University, says his classroom research
suggests that plenty of the people talking on the phone around you are
really faking it. In one survey Dr. Katz conducted, more than a
quarter of his students said they made fake calls. He found the number
hard to believe. Then in another class 27 of 29 students said they did
"People are turning the technology on its head," Dr. Katz said. "They
are taking a device that was designed to talk to people who are far
away and using it to communicate with people who are directly around
Call them cellphonies.
Some stage calls to avoid contact, whether with neighbors or
panhandlers, co-workers or supervisors, Greenpeace canvassers or Girl
Scouts. Some do it to impress those within earshot, others so they
don't look lonely. Men talk to their handsets while they're checking
out women. Women converse with the air to avert unwanted approaches by
Camera phone shutterbugs fake being on the phone so they can get a
good angle without looking suspicious. And certain cellular vigilantes
fake for the benefit of real callers who are oblivious to the rules of
"I fake phone talk to get a point across," said Ty Hammond, of
Pullman, Wash., who once forced an apology from a woman spewing
excessively personal details into her cellphone in an elevator by
shouting (made-up) escapades of his own into his (powered-off) phone.
"People need to know phone etiquette and fake phone calling is a great
tool for showing them."
The fake phone call has an etiquette, or at least a technique, all its
own. Inexperienced cellphonies risk exposure with their limited
repertoire of "uh-huhs." Sophisticated simulators achieve authenticity
by re-enacting their side of an actual dialogue. Or they call
voice-activated phone trees, so it sounds like someone is talking on
the other end.
"I'll take a previous experience and pretend like I'm talking to
somebody about it so I'm not just making up something off the top of
my head," said John Wilcox, a phone salesman in Albany who often
appears to be on his cellphone when a problem customer walks in.
"Maybe it's a snowboarding move: 'Remember that back flip with the
twist and the somersault?' "
Mr. Wilcox used the technique as he waited for the right moment to
approach a woman he saw in a store at the mall recently. "I couldn't
just stand there looking like an idiot," he said.
For Micheal K. Meyer, the key is the look on your face when you
"You grimace a little bit, act really interested in what you're not
really hearing on the other end," said Mr. Meyer, an aircraft mechanic
in Lake City, Fla., who has feigned hundreds of calls. "You've got to
A lawyer in San Francisco said she frequently pretends to be finishing
up a conference call that she took on the road so her colleagues don't
give her a hard time about walking in late.
"Pretending is very flexible," noted the lawyer, 37, who insisted on
anonymity to protect her ability to continue using the ruse. "You can
end the conversation whenever you want."
On many handsets, pressing the speakerphone button makes a ringing
sound that fakers can pretend is a call coming in. But pros counsel to
turn the phone off to prevent your cover from being blown. Or at least
set it to vibrate.
That is a lesson Scott Spector, 15, learned the hard way, when his
phone started blasting his "American Idol Theme" ringtone as he was
pretending to talk into it in the hall at school last month.
"I felt like such a dork," said Scott, of Buffalo Grove, Ill.
Dr. Katz of Rutgers said the practice first drew his attention when
students in focus groups he had organized to study a wide range of
cellphone use began mentioning it, unprompted.
The habit, Dr. Katz said, is the latest technological twist in a
culture that has long embraced various forms of dissembling in the
name of image, from designer knockoff handbags to plastic surgery.
Some fakers admit to programming their phones to call them at a
certain time to show off their ring tones; others wrap up make-believe
Hollywood deals in front of people they want to impress.
And phantom callers are often simply trying to cope with social
anxiety by showing that they have someone to call, even if they don't.
One of Dr. Katz's students said she pretended to use her cellphone
when she was out with a group of other college-age women who were all
on theirs. Another did it to escape from a fancy boutique where the
prices were beyond her means without speaking to a salesperson.
In that sense fake callers are may not be so different from a lot of
real callers, who are always partly performing for others even as they
as they appear to withdraw into their own private space in public.
"The cellphone allows people to show strangers that they belong, that
they are part of a community somewhere," said Christine Rosen, who
studies the social impact of technology at the Ethics and Public
Policy Center in Washington. "Whether or not it's a fictional call, on
some level that's why we're doing it."
But the surfeit of counterfeit calls underscores the lengths to which
people feel compelled to go to project an image for others. Sometimes
the impulse is almost subconscious.
Mark Konchar, a network administrator in Canton, Ohio, had just hung
up after sitting in his parked car behind a strip mall talking to a
friend one afternoon, when he saw people emerging from the employee's
entrance to one of the stores. Quickly, he put the phone back up to
his ear and pretended to talk.
"I guess I thought people might wonder why you're sitting out there in
your car; it might look strange," said Mr. Konchar, 33. "It's one of
those things where after the situation happens you're wondering, 'Why
did I do that?' "
Many women rely on fake cell phone calls when they fear for their
physical safety. Yessenia Morales, 21, said she recently called a
non-existent friend while being followed by a group of men on a train
"I'll see you in a few minutes," she promised the ether.
But fake calls are often made by people trying to preserve a more
psychological remove. Mike Lupiani uses his impersonation of someone
on the phone to ignore his chatty next-door neighbors. "They ask how
your day is going and stuff," said Mr. Lupiani, of Rochester. "I don't
really have time for it."
Christina Rohall, 29, said she pretends to use the phone to avoid
getting hit on. "I feel awkward just rejecting people," said Ms.
Rohall, of San Francisco.
How well the fake call works is one of its most appealing qualities ,
and a testament to how much respect people automatically grant to a
cellphone force field. Bartosz Sitarski, 24, said he once pretended to
be on a cellphone call for a full 15 minutes when someone he didn't
want to speak to was waiting to talk to him at a Milwaukee coffee
shop. The other person finally left rather than interrupt the "call."
Even security guards seem to respect the cellphone buffer, said
Michael McEachern, 16, of San Diego, who has found the fake call a
useful way to get to the club level at a Padres game when he doesn't
have a pass. Some frequent fakers worry that the wireless charade will
be harder to pull off once more people begin to suspect it.
But that will not deter Adam Hecht, a radiologist in Berkeley Heights,
N.J., whose wife said she is often mortified by his cellphone humor.
Mr. Hecht, 40, reserves his fake phoning for places with no reception,
like the Tiffany's at the Short Hills, N.J., mall, where cellphones
have apparently been rendered unusable to preserve the ambiance: "I
usually go through a long medical scenario," he said, "that doesn't
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