This is an interesting article posted in the NY Times about people faking conversation into their cells...
April 14, 2005
Reach Out and Touch No One
By AMY HARMON
HE 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 it.
"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 them."
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 men.
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 "answer."
"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 platform.
"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 exist."