Opinion: Should we try to shut up loud-talking cellphone users?

At some stores, signs are posted asking customers to refrain from using their cellphones while checking out, presumably so the clerk doesn’t have to shout at them to get their attention. — Dreamstime/TNS

How obligated are you to mind your own business?

It’s not unusual to come across a piece of information we weren’t meant to see. Perhaps a manager forgot to remove an original document containing confidential information from the copy machine where he was making copies. Or a colleague took a break from her desk but left an email open on her computer for anyone to see.

In such cases, I believe the right thing is to alert the document owner or email user. Better still is for each of us to be careful about keeping those things secure that we hope to keep secure.

But what should you do when you are in public and overhear a conversation that seems to be highly personal? That is the question a reader we’re calling Eve asked after a recent trip to a popular wholesale retail chain.

“I was standing on line with my cart waiting to check out,” wrote Eve. “The guy in the line next to me was wearing earbuds and talking loudly into his phone.”

At first, Eve found the situation annoying. “What makes people think it’s okay to have loud conversations in public?” She wondered why the shopper didn’t have “the courtesy” to stop listening through his earbuds and just talk into his phone.

But then the fellow shopper’s conversation got very personal and animated. “He started shouting into the phone and was yelling about something to do with child care,” wrote Eve. “It seemed totally inappropriate and not the kind of conversation you’d want the rest of the world to listen in on.”

Eve wants to know if she should have said something to the fellow shopper or asked a manager to ask him to keep his private conversations private.

While I agree with Eve that people who have loud conversations into their phones in public spaces – whether it’s in a store, on the subway or during movie coming attractions – can be annoying. At some stores, signs are posted asking customers to refrain from using their cellphones while checking out, presumably so the clerk doesn’t have to shout at them to get their attention.

I’m not of the mind, however, that it’s Eve’s job to be the loud-talker police at the store or to report a fellow customer if loud talking erupts. If a store has a policy against talking on cellphones while checking out, then it’s the role of store employees to enforce the rule. It’s not Eve’s responsibility.

The right thing is for the store or office or any area where such loud public cellphone talking might take place to make clear what its policy is and to try to enforce the policy. If it doesn’t enforce the policy, it only adds to the annoyance of other customers.

Trying to be thoughtful to other customers and to workers is also a good practice. When it’s possible to have a conversation with anyone at any time in any setting, it might be easy to forget others might be made uncomfortable by hearing our personal conversations. If Eve’s loud-talking fellow customer could have waited a few minutes until after he had checked out and then taken the call once he was out of the store, that would have been the right thing to do. – Tribune News Service

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