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Intimacy Among Strangers: On mobile telephone calls in public places

Abstract. Mobile telephone calls in public places often entail the revelation of intimate details about the caller’s life to strangers. This article reports some results of the authors eavesdropping on mobile phone calls in public places and also takes the first step into analysis of the fascinating mix of visibility and inaccessibility, intimacy and alienation that is the mobile telephone call in a public place. The article discusses how this intimacy among strangers may be understood using Goffmans concepts of impression management, involvement shields and civil inattention.
On the surface, mobile telephone calls in public places may seem absurd: a person speaks, but not to the others around him. Those nearby are often close enough to overhear what is said, sometimes becoming privy to astonishingly intimate details about the speaker and others. What makes this intimacy among strangers possible?

Perhaps the so far relatively scarce research on mobile telephony provides us with answers. At a recent Norwegian seminar possible social consequences of mobile telephony were charted and one of the researchers were of the opinion that the mobile phone is fundamentally changing social relations, not the least in public places (Fortunati 2000). Mobile phoning in public places was also said to produce both friction between people and questions about proper behavior when among other persons (Haddon 2000). Is it, for example, proper to talk about private matters in a mobile phone in public places? Questions like this probably explain why modern etiquette handbooks have a paragraph on “mobile phone etiquette”. Further, mobile phones are said to be used, especially by youth, in identity work as a symbolic capital to show that they belong to a certain group (Skog 2000).

Thus, there are some theoretical ideas about mobile phoning in public places, but as far as I know no empirical studies of the phenomenon has been conducted. In this article I will present some results of some preliminary research I’ve done by eavesdropping on mobile phone calls in public places (well, sometimes it’s hard not to listen to the calls). Further, I shall touch upon a few elements of an analysis that directs attention to the fascinating mix of visibility and inaccessibility, intimacy and alienation that is the mobile telephone call in a public place. The analysis, so far in an early stage of development, simply consists of an application of some of Goffman’s concepts. It aim at understanding why people, that normally keep their private life to themselves, while speaking in mobile phones in public places, sometimes reveals the most intimate details to strangers around them.

Impression management

Public mobile calling, at least partly, could be understood as impression management. Goffman (1959) provides us with multi-faceted insight into the technique of impression management, covering everything from how an umpire communicates an impression of certainty, to the demonstration of poverty that takes place when need shall be determined, to immigrants to the U.S. who Americanize their names or their noses.

If mobile calling in public places shall be understood by means of the concept of impression management, one should begin by distinguishing between expressions that are “given off” and those that are “given” (Goffman 1959). If we regard mobile calling as a given off expression, it is not what is said during the telephone call that manages the impression, but rather the fact that the person in question is using the mobile telephone in public, in the physical presence of others unknown. It can be assumed that some persons acting like that want to present themselves in a certain way. Studies show, for example, that some teenagers use their mobile phones as a symbolic capital, a marker that shows that they belong to a certain group and that they are “connected” (Ling & Helmersen 2000; Skog 2000). If only few people possess mobile phones, which in fact was the case also in the modernized part of the world for ten years ago, one can further assume that mobile phones becomes status symbols for those who wants to appear for example significant, powerful and busy. Dummy or fake mobile phones, used specifically to give off such impressions, also indicates that and are still in use in countries where the mobile phone is relatively rare. In an article on mass media in Hungary some years ago, one could read the following:

Meanwhile, the mobile phone market also underwent dramatic changes. At first glance it appears that there are at least as many mobile phones in the streets of Budapest as in any Western European or American city. The competitive prices and services of the mobile phone companies make this medium of communication attractive to Hungarian customers who in Socialist times had to wait years for installation of home or business phone line. Mobile phones have also rapidly become a symbol of new social status and wealth. In fact, fake mobile phones that look exactly like the real thing (but not connected) are the hottest selling item in Hungary! (Csapo-Sweet & Kaposi 1999)
And in a police raid in Chile against drivers who were talking in mobile phones while driving “one third of those stopped were actually using fake mobile phones and just pretending to talk” (Scoop Chile 10/6 1998). The use of dummy mobile phones in South America and England was in fact the reason why two British researchers studied how men use their mobile phones to strut on women (Angier 2000). The researchers were observing men in a pub for four months and found that some of them used the mobile phone as a lekking device and they compare the mobile phone with the feathers of a bird that try to lure females to mate (Lycett & Dunbar 2000).

However, when mobile phones become so common that their use alone is no longer a mark of distinction, as in Scandinavia were more then half of the population owns mobile phones, the device itself no longer constitutes a given off expression. And so an interesting change may occur, which leads to impression management by means of given expressions.

Since one must speak audibly into the mobile phone, one side of the conversation necessarily becomes public. Anyone with the desire and patience to listen can do so. Thus, the expressions given to the person at the other end of the telephone connection also become expressions given to the intentional and unintentional listeners in the immediate physical environment. It follows that the verbal expression manages the impression. It is off course impossible to say if a person actually is trying to manage impressions by saying certain things in a mobile phone in a public place. But sometimes one can suspect so, as in the following case: a mobile phone call that I overheard on the airport shuttle between Arlanda Airport and downtown Stockholm. There were no empty seats, so I stood in the back of the bus. A very beautiful woman was also standing nearby. After the bus started, a man in his forties got out of his seat and began moseying down the center aisle, talking on his mobile phone all the while. He moved further and further towards the back of the bus, and it could be discerned from his overacted movements and gestures that he was trying to improve the telephone’s reception. Finally, he found the perfect conditions for reception – and perhaps it was no coincidence that they happened to exist right next to the beautiful woman. It now became very clear that he was talking to his broker, and outbursts like “Buy a million’s worth!” and “Sell ten thousand!” became ever more frequent. Whether there was a real broker listening on the other end of the telephone connection I do not know, but there were many other recipients of the message on the bus. When the beautiful woman got off the bus one station before the end of the line, the telephone call also came to an end.

Some other cases, reported by friends and colleagues, imply that the mobile phone is used by a new kind of exhibitionist, an electronic exhibitionist. That was the case with the man on the bus that in every single detail described his latest intercourse in a mobile phone to a friend (possibly a make-believe friend), which all the others in the bus and especially the woman beside (my informant) had to share with him.

This palpable form of impression management by means of given expression is probably not particularly common. Few take such deliberate pains. Mobile calling as an impression managing activity seems to have subsided. Instead, the mobile telephone as an involvement shield has come to the forefront, and the amazing thing is then that people talking on mobile phones seem wholly or partially unaware of their surroundings. The mobile phone seems to make us feel as if we are alone, even in public places where we are surrounded by many other people.

Involvement shields

We can also benefit from Goffman’s analyses in order to understand this shielding effect. Goffman works essentially with two different means by which we conceal ourselves from others, which are barely distinguishable other than analytically. The first is that one actually makes oneself invisible behind physical barriers to perception, effecting a sharp delineation between front stage and backstage regions. This dividing line, according to Goffman (1959), is manifested everywhere in our society. The backstage in the home, for example, is the bathroom and the bedroom; in business, the warehouse and the area behind the counter are backstage. Such tangible borders between the visibility of the stage and the penumbra in the wings are found everywhere, even as the dividing lines may also be manifested through people acting in different ways at different times, thus transforming a single place into an alternating front and backstage. This brings us to the other means of concealment: by making parts of oneself inaccessible to others without the benefit of tangible, physical barriers to perception. One hides within oneself.

In another context, and from a somewhat different point of departure, Goffman addresses these barriers to perception, which he calls involvement shields (1966). The concept has to do with how much an individual allows those around him to participate in his life, and the active ingredient here is how the individual shields himself from his surroundings. Goffman defines the concept as barriers to perception, “behind which the individual can feel safe doing things that usually lead to negative sanctions.” (1966: 39) Bedrooms and bathrooms are cited once again as examples from the domestic world; particularly the bathroom, which Goffman says is the only room that an individual can safely lock himself into alone. There are many other examples of involvement shields, but the interesting thing is how the individual manages his encounters with others and establishes boundaries between self and others.

In passing, Goffman also mentions portable involvement shields, such as fans or masks. These devices are intended to openly conceal revealing facial expressions or a blush, for example. One hides behind them. Objects used to make oneself seem inaccessible to others may also be included in this category; a newspaper or book can be used when one is sitting in a café to shield oneself from others. And so can a mobile phone.

However, one does not physically hide behind a mobile phone, especially considering that they are getting smaller and smaller. One shields oneself by making oneself inaccessible to those who are physically near. By means of the phone, one is transported somewhere else. The point of a mobile telephone is that it is mobile and can be used practically anywhere. What interests me is when people use them in more or less public places.

Public places are important in Goffman’s sociology because they are places where the individual and society meet. The possibility of seeing and perceiving the individual is assigned central importance and it thus follows that barriers to perception, involvement shields, are also important, since they constitute boundaries between individual visibility and invisibility, accessibility and inaccessibility. Involvement shields offer individuals opportunities to avoid society – at least temporarily. Goffman’s research thus concerns both the social performance and the hiding places where one withdraws from one’s social audience.

Intimacy among strangers

Public places are places where the individual meet the others as well as society. The individual can appear here as if the public place were a stage and at the same time use different involvement shields to escape the others and society. There are different kinds of public places. Those where people are in constant movement and meet only in passing, but also those where people unknown to each other find themselves in close proximity for relatively long periods of time, such as buses, subway cars, airport lounges, and railway stations. The people can touch each other, talk to each other, start to fight, laugh out loud – but they usually don’t. However, amidst all these strangers, conversations are held over the telephone with people wholly distanced from the situation shared by the strangers. The strangers can eavesdrop on one side of the conversation. What they hear may be anything from insider information about the caller’s workplace to private trivia, but often, they also hear intimate, in the confidential sense, details about co-workers, the caller’s life, family, financial circumstances and plans. In public places the borders between public and private, visibility and invisibility and individual accessibility and inaccessibility are constantly tried and renegotiated. The mobile phone calls in public places is part of this process. Through shielding from the others “behind” the mobile phone, the caller in a way gets invisible and inaccessible, and can therefore, for the most part unconsciously, invite others to his or her private sphere.

For a while now I have, more or less systematic, been eavesdropping on mobile phone calls in public places. First, most of the calls are trivial to the eavesdropper. Mobile phone calls seem often to be an instrument in producing temporal and spatial coordination. That’s probably why they often start with a geographical locating (on this, see Laurier 2001). Second, the mobile phone is used as an instrument in social rituals of belonging and confirmation. Teenagers seem to create a Gemeinschaft on distance with the help of the mobile phone. But also adults use the mobile phone to stay connected to their groups, either of friends, relatives or workmates. As an eavesdropper one discovers that social rituals are maintained by babble – necessary babble. Third, there is the already mentioned mobile phone calls that – of thoughtlessness or to manage impressions – reveals intimate details about the caller´s life to strangers. One example is the girl who is talking to a friend in a mobile phone in a bus and unveils that she is unfaithful to her boyfriend. The friend on the other end apparently urged her to talk to the boyfriend and the girl at the bus burst out: “I can’t tell him that!” But she told everyone in the bus about her unfaithfulness – probably because she had forgotten the others.

What makes this intimacy among strangers possible? In some sense, it is the mobile phone. If a person began talking with any of the strangers around him about the relatively intimate things that are at times publicly addressed using mobile phones, it would seem more or less improper. If the person began talking to the air, he or she would seem crazy. As an exercise, you may compare your spontaneous reaction when a person talks on a mobile phone in a public place to your reaction when a person uses a headset. The headset’s tiny microphone does not function as a shield and until we have become used to how people these days are seemingly talking straight into the air, our spontaneous typification of such speech will probably make use of one definition of insanity or another.

What is it about the mobile phone that makes intimacy among strangers possible? First, its function as a shield is of primary importance. In this respect, the phone is not much different from a newspaper or a book. It signals the same kind of inaccessibility and erects a communicative barrier between the caller and others. The difference is that the reader of a newspaper or book doesn’t usually comment verbally upon what she is reading, but rather keeps it to herself. Secondly, that which is of importance about the mobile phone is the remote communication itself. Mobile calling is an audible activity at the same time that the very fact that it is communicative makes the shielding even more impressive. The mobile caller is in some sense not present in the public place, but is rather part of a relationship whose other half also physically eludes the public.

But there is also something about the strangers in the public place that makes this intimacy among them possible. First, the very fact that they are strangers – the mobile caller has nothing to lose by sharing his secrets with them. There is little likelihood he will ever meet any of them again and if it should happen, it is even less likely that the stranger would let on or even remember that she or he heard anything. In the situation itself, among the strangers, the mobile caller benefits from what Goffman (1966) calls civil inattention from the others. In this case, civil inattention is expressed by strangers not showing that they hear – even while notorious eavesdroppers like me mask their curiosity. This maintains the alienation and allows the mobile caller to perceive the others as a mass and not as hearing individuals.

Works Cited

Angier, N. 2000. “Cell Phone or Pheromone? New Props for the Mating Game,” in New York Times November 7 2000.

Csapo-Sweet, R.M. & Kaposi, I. 1999. “Mass Media in Post-Communist Hungary,” in International Communications Bulletin, Vol. 34, No. 1-2.

Fortunati, L. 2000. The Mobile Phone: New Social Categories and Relations, in Ling & Thrane (eds.).

Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Goffman, E. 1966. Behavior in Public Places. New York: The Free Press.

Haddon, L. 2000. The Social Consequences of Mobile Telephony: Framing Questions, in Ling & Thrane (eds.) 2000.

Laurier, E. 2001. Why people say where they are during mobile phone calls, forthcoming in Environment and Planning D.

Ling, R. & Helmersen, P. 2000. “It must be necessary, it has to cover a need”: The adoption of mobile telephony among pre-adolescents and adolescents, in Ling & Thrane (eds.) 2000.

Ling, R. & Thrane, K. (eds.) 2000. The Social Consequences of Mobile Telephony: the proceedings from a seminar about society, mobile telephony and children. Kjeller: Telenor R&D. (partly in English)

Lycett, J.E. & Dunbar, R.I.M. 2000. “Mobile Phones as Lekking Devices among Human Males,” in Human Nature, Vol. 11, No. 1 (pp 93-104).

Scoop Chile, June 10 1998,

Skog, B. 2000. “Mobiltelefon som symbolsk kapital i ungdomskulturen” (The Mobile Phone as Symbolic Capital in Youth Culture), in Ling & Thrane (eds.) 2000.

Author: Anders Persson is an Associate Professor in Sociology at Lund University in Sweden and researcher at the Swedish National Institute of Working Life.

Published inIssue 2.3Issues
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