[Paleopsych] NYT: Reach Out and Touch No One

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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 


    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
    local Wal-Mart.

    "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
    common decency.

    "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
    sell it."

    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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