Cellular Static

By Margaret Littman, Chicago Business – 04/10/2002 – 12:00am


One morning last October, as Mark Perlman commuted on Metra to Chicago’s Northwestern Station from Highland Park, he used his cell phone to make a few calls — business and personal. After one conversation, a fellow passenger politely told Mr. Perlman that he had been speaking so loudly that the passenger couldn’t concentrate on his own reading.

“I thought I had carte blanche to use it. I guess I was just too self-preoccupied to realize what a disturbance cell phones can be in tight quarters,” Mr. Perlman says.

Since then, when he needs to call a client of Weiser Group, the Loop marketing firm where he is senior director, he heads to a passageway between two train cars. Otherwise, he turns the phone off during his commute. “He was pretty nice about it,” Mr. Perlman says of the man who pointed out the volume problem. “I’ve noticed people being a lot ruder.”

As the cellular phone market grows, so does antagonism against cell phone squawking. The problem is expected to worsen as use becomes more pervasive. Boston-based research firm Yankee Group estimates that by 2005, 41% of all phone conversation minutes will be wireless, compared with 7% in 2000.

The discord is creating a new group of outcasts: Like smokers huddled outside for a quick drag, some cell phone users are sneaking in a quick call before entering a no-cell zone. And if history is any indicator, local businesses are likely to become less friendly to those with dialing digits.

“It (will be) just like the anti-smoking laws. At first, people protested those, but here we are, and they are just part of life in certain areas,” says Sue Fox, author of “Business Etiquette for Dummies.”

Cell phone restrictions will come more swiftly — and with less opposition — than anti-smoking laws, because they are being introduced at the beginning of the product’s life cycle rather than after decades of use, as was the case with cigarettes, says Sue O’Curry, chair of the department of marketing at the Charles H. Kellstadt Graduate School of Business at DePaul University in Chicago.

In fact, many cell phone toters already report belligerent run-ins. Lawrence Steinert, founder of Chicago-based 4 MFG Inc., a business-to-business Web site, was at the park with his daughter when he “had to take a call to keep a transaction from falling apart,” he says.

While he was talking, another parent commented on “rude and uncaring parents who do not value time with their children.” She continued complaining throughout his call. Afterward, Mr. Steinert told her that if he had not taken the five-minute call, he would not have been able to see his daughter at all that day.

The issue goes beyond etiquette. For many area businesses, patrons’ inappropriate use of cell phones can affect the bottom line. If they have a reputation for being lax about cell phone use, they can lose customers.

At a posh restaurant, Ellen Grossman, manager of Ancient Echoes retail gift shop on Armitage Avenue, asked her server to do something about a man at the next table who had been talking on his cell phone and pacing throughout her two-hour meal. The server responded by throwing up his hands, causing her to be frustrated with the restaurant as well as her fellow diner.

But if a business is too rigid, it may lose cell phone users as customers.

Nevertheless, Bruce Sherman, executive chef at North Pond Cafe in Lincoln Park, is pondering instituting a formal cell phone policy.

“We certainly would prefer that people use common sense, because it is a sticky situation,” he says. “It would be awkward approaching a table and asking a diner to turn his or her cell phone off. But, from a chef’s standpoint, if someone is on a cell phone for five or 10 minutes, that can affect the flow of the kitchen.”

In most upscale restaurants, a chef won’t send an entree to a table if the diners are in the rest-room, still eating their appetizers or chatting on the phone. So those dishes sit in the kitchen.

If too many plates pile up, it can cause chaos for the kitchen staff, waste food and lower tips for the wait staff, who must choose between serving cold food or waiting for a meal to be reheated.

In theory, such waits mean each party spends more time at the table. For restaurateurs, who depend on frequent “table turns” to generate more orders and income, a patron’s leisurely chat could mean less in the till that night.

Mr. Sherman isn’t sure how best to limit or prohibit cell phone use at the table. “I’m thinking about a discreet sign that says, ‘Please refrain from use of cell phones,’ ” he says.

Other types of businesses are equally torn. For years, many hospitals have been cell phone-free, because the phones’ frequencies were thought to interfere with medical equipment.

But Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic issued a study in January that found that while “cellular telephones interfered with the operation of external devices, the interference was not sufficient to meaningfully hinder interpretation of data,” and called for more studies.

In response, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which had no official policy, is thinking about establishing one.

Illinois Masonic Medical Center and Ravenswood Hospital Medical Center prohibit cell phones but are considering loosening their policies, partly because they’re hard to enforce.

At Chicago’s Symphony Center, the policy prohibiting use of pagers and cell phones is printed on programs. So far, the venue does not make announcements before performances, but it may consider doing so if enough patrons “forget” to leave their beepers and phones with the house manager.

Even signage doesn’t always work. Just ask Ancient Echoes’ Ms. Grossman. After the transmitters in some cell phones triggered the store’s security alarm, which is linked to the local police station, Ms. Grossman posted a sign asking customers to turn their phones off while inside. The store is fined $50 to $100 for every false alarm after the first five per calendar year.

“The sign did not deter people. It was a joke,” she says. “More people used their phones when the sign was up than when it wasn’t.”

Ms. Grossman took the sign down after six months.

Salon 1800, a day spa and hair salon in Lincoln Park, allows cell phones in the beauty shop, but the devices are forbidden in the massage area. Assistant Manager Lisa Velen has considered adding a line on the list of services.

For now, she directs customers who are agitated by cell chatter to make appointments when business women are less likely to be using the manicurist’s table as their not-so-private office.

Donald Madia, owner of Blackbird restaurant on Randolph Street, found a compromise. At dinner, he prohibits use of cell phones. The request is printed at the bottom of the menus, and diners are told as they are seated they can use the house phone even for long-distance calls.

But with his downtown location, Mr. Madia knew he couldn’t ban the cellular onslaught at lunch, or he’d lose the business crowd. Cell phones are allowed for two and a half hours at lunchtime.

“There are people who thank us for our (no-phones-at-dinner) policy,” he says. “But it tends to be people who are really foodies. (Others) look at me like, ‘What’s the problem? It’s the 2000s.’ ”

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