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    Monday, January 30, 2006

    On Public and Private

    Dear Prudence bugged the hell out of me today:

    Dear Prudie,
    I finally did it. While sitting at my favorite coffee shop I endured an excruciating 25 minutes until I could bear it no more. I loudly told the mother of a 2-year-old to shut her child up. I have no regrets, but am interested in your opinion. Every day I listen to college-age women gab on their cell phones about the most intimate matters, while I am sitting mere feet away. I once gently told one woman, about to initiate her fourth 15-minute conversation of the day, that I had been learning a good deal about her, her friends, and her thoughts about life and relationships. While I found it interesting, I wondered whether she really wanted to share all these things with a complete stranger. Stunned into silence, she withdrew into, mirabile visu, private meditation. Today I witnessed the drearily familiar scene of a parent, undoubtedly driven mad by the auditory excesses of her child, seeking solace over coffee with friends. Who would not sympathize? Well, I don't, not when she barely made an effort to quiet a kid who was running around and screaming. It is wrong to take my time away from me because you are unable to discipline your child. Our society is losing touch with the concept of borders and the separation between public and private. Today I struck a small blow for a return to the notion of shared space that does not equate to the absolute surrender by all to the whims of a 2-year-old.


    Dear Un,
    Prudie shares your feelings entirely. Observation suggests that we are too deep into a culture of "do whatever." Cell phones are, alas, now part of life, and either people don't care that they're bothering others and may be overheard—or they've never given it a thought. We are also in agreement that borders and boundaries are gone with the wind, save for the minority who still cares about politesse. To protect yourself, my only recommendation would be to find places that are not hangouts for young mothers. This is a public policy problem with no answer. Probably the best thing you can do (when you can stand it no longer) is to say something. Once in a while it may even do some good.

    I can get behind the shut-the-kid-up thing because kids will be crying and generally messing around in ways that are loud, dangerous, and completely and totally unignorable and it can completely ruin another person's experience. But why is it that people (oh, excuse me, this seems to apply exclusively to those ditzy young women) cannot speak about their personal lives on the phone? I truly don't think it's your right to be offended that someone doesn't want to hide away at home and whisper the shameful secrets of their lives just because you do. I mean, you don't know this person so what difference does it make if you know everything about, say, her sexual habits or her most recent therapy session? How can that hurt you? If they are shouting it, you are well within your rights to tell them to speak at a lower volume, but, if you're sooooooooo concerned about their privacy, then why do you feel the need to enter it by telling them not to share what, to them, may not actually be "personal" information? I mean, this Ungently bitch (and I mean that in a gender neutral way) pretends that the young women sharing whatever information they damn well please over their cellular phones are so stupid as to be unaware of the fact that, gasp, they might be overheard while in a public place! And if these people don't care that you know, why should you? If they're talking to you and you don't know them, tell them to leave you alone. If they're simply enjoying a conversation with a friend, in the name of privacy and boundaries and all that holy stuff, mind your own business!

    I also cannot stand the smugness of Ungently- as if s/he is some kind of righteous activist.

    Finally, is it just me or does it seem like some rickety (and not entirely conscious, on Ungently's part) association is being made between the screaming of a toddler at a cafe and the telephone habits of young women? Am I being shrill if I suggest that some infantalizing of young women is going on?


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