The effects of second-hand spoke

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Being subjected to other people's smoke in public is bad enough, but other people's private drivel? Intrusive cell phone chatter is known in the medical community as "second-hand spoke" and is widely believed to cause everything from itchy scalp to emotional distress. Like second-hand smoke, it's your health risk even though it's someone else's fault.

Techwit By Jason Ohler

I personally have experienced the anxiety that second-hand spoke can cause. Just the other day in the airport a man looked right at me and said, "I think it's time we ended his miserable little life." I froze in terror. A few sentences later I saw the ear piece tucked in his ear and realized he was talking to his wife on his cell phone about their dog of 18 years who couldn't digest his food anymore. Hey, I'm sorry about the dog, but what about me? The pain and suffering I experienced for the few seconds I thought my life was over probably gave me an ulcer! And how about the trauma I experienced knowing about the dog's imminent demise? Liability lawyers and therapists are going to have a field day.

Who are the perpetrators of this thoroughly modern epidemic? "Cell-i-butts," I call them. They butt into our lives with their cell phone clatter, assuming we'll ignore them as they broadcast every unseemly detail of their lives to the public around them - particularly, for some reason, at the supermarket. They yak away in checkout lines and expect us not to become hysterical when they scream into their cell phones, "Oh my god. An outbreak of the plague? When it will reach us?" They make entire food sections unusable while they debate what to buy with the folks back at the house. Like a guy I watched create a ruckus in the dessert aisle recently. He was arguing with his wife via cell phone about which ice cream to get; he wanted chocolate swirl and she wanted vanilla. Being a chocolate swirl man myself I offered to talk to her on his behalf. When he told me to buzz off I leaned into his cell phone and asked why he was wearing his wife's clothes in public. He left quickly. The dessert aisle had been liberated. I felt heroic.

The government has no intention of helping with the second-hand spoke problem because it's far more concerned with another issue. It turns out that cell phones are the excuse a lot of people have been waiting for to talk to imaginary people in public.

Any shrink worth his parchment will tell you that most of us have imaginary friends we talk to well after childhood. After age 8 it's not cute anymore so we learn to keep it to ourselves to escape a lifetime of psychiatric care. But thanks to cell phones, talking to imaginary people in public knows no age restrictions.

How widespread is it? A top-secret CIA document left at my pool party reports that fully one quarter of all cell phone conversations are with people who aren't there. Usually, imaginary friends aren't as extreme as the kind Russell Crowe's character had in the movie, "A Beautiful Mind;" he actually shared a room at college with someone who didn't exist (though come to think of it, my college roommate wasn't around a lot either). More often people talk to dead pets, deceased celebrities or people outside their roaming area. My favorite imaginary friend is a stock broker who forgot to tell me to sell everything three years ago.

Bottom line? The government is actually encouraging second-hand spoke so it can eavesdrop on our conversations. It's how they troll for wackos without leaving the office. My advice? Take matters into your own hands. Heroism awaits anyone with the courage to butt into someone else's cell phone conversation. And if you're one of those people who calls Elvis regularly, just remember: The government is listening.

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at © 2002 Jason Ohler.

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