Monday, March 19, 2012

Hello, Can You Read Me? Personal Security and Loud Talking on the Phone in the Troubled Public Space


Obododimma Oha

Telephone conversations are generally characterized by the hallucination that someone's listening ears are connected to another person's talking mouth, the roles of speaker and listener being switched now and then, with turns sometimes grabbed and sometimes respected. That hallucination is located in the mutual desire to suspend the awareness of unreal presence and to cling to an illusion of diminished distance. That hallucination, even though acted out to make us enjoy telephoning as a mediated social drama, may eventually lead to the practice of losing oneself entirely in the interaction, or forgetfulness of the context of the exchange. Indeed, being aware of and "awake" in the context of the talk is one of the basic principles in the etiquette of telephoning, or what one may playfully call a "phonetiquette." Simply defined, phonetiquette is the sound of talking working in accordance with the acceptable rules of conduct in a given cultural setting. 

Joanna L. Krotz, writing on "Cell phone etiquette: 10 dos and don'ts," an essay featured on Microsoft Business for Small and Midsize Companies, offers the following rules for a civilized mobile phoning:

1. Never take a personal mobile call during a business meeting. This includes interviews and meetings with co-workers or subordinates.

2. Maintain at least a 10-foot zone from anyone while talking.

3. Never talk in elevators, libraries, museums, restaurants, cemeteries, theaters, dentist or doctor waiting rooms, places of worship, auditoriums or other enclosed public spaces, such as hospital emergency rooms or buses. And don't have any emotional conversations in public — ever.

4. Don't use loud and annoying ring tones that destroy concentration and eardrums. Grow up!

5. Never "multi-task" by making calls while shopping, banking, waiting in line or conducting other personal business.

6. Keep all cellular congress brief and to the point.

7. Use an earpiece in high-traffic or noisy locations. That lets you hear the amplification, or how loud you sound at the other end, so you can modulate your voice.

8. Tell callers when you're talking on a mobile, so they can anticipate distractions or disconnections.

9. Demand "quiet zones" and "phone-free areas" at work and in public venues, like the quiet cars on the Amtrak Metroliner.

10. Inform everyone in your mobile address book that you've just adopted the new rules for mobile manners. Ask them to do likewise. Please. 

Being aware of the etiquette that is tied to telephoning is a basic requirement which, since the invention of telephone itself, has formed part of the training of receptionists, secretaries, and administrative officers. One can find specific entries relating to the etiquette of telephoning in books on etiquette, not just for job positions that require the use of the telephone, but for everyday communication with acquaintances, relatives, friends, etc. Phone etiquette could therefore be seen as part of the communication skills that a human being existing in this Information Age is required to possess.

A "hello" (sometimes realized as "hallo" and "Hullo") is a signal, not just to the act of interacting with another person (which sets the tenor of the talk), but also a signal for the talker to get ready to practice as well as present self for trial on phonetiquette. The hello sets expectations for compliance on the rules of talking on the phone, with sensitivity to context, purpose, interactant, etc. Every phone user therefore is invited by this product of civilized communication to acquire and exhibit the skills of telephoning. It is not just a matter of one being able to afford a phone (these days cellphones sell cheaply in Nigeria, thanks to China and Nigeria's booming tokunbo market) and so one can start helloing and hulloing anyhow. Isn't it absurd that one would make a call and start asking the person who picks the call to disclose his or her identity, instead of the caller being the person to introduce self first? But that absurdity has almost become common in a country like Nigeria with the availability of cheap mobile phone network services, proliferation of cellphones and people using them without learning phone talking rules. Apart from the embarrassment and sometimes conflicts that emerge from offensive talking to unknown persons at the other end, very serious security problems arise with regard to loud talking on the phone in public spaces, especially given the endemic nature of violent crimes like armed banditry and ransom kidnapping in a country like Nigeria. 

Consider the following fabricated phone calls made by some Nigerians in a Nigerian environment:

(a) Hello, this is Iduu Thousand speaking. Yes, I am now back from Taiwan. The containers have been cleared. 12 of them. I am now on my way to the bank to pay the remaining three million dollars. No, don't worry; I am going to pay in one million cash, the other in certified cheque. Nothing to worry about. I don't play with my business. I won't disappoint you. Bye bye. 

(b) Hallo, hallo! It's me Otunba Okunsanya. Bawo ni? Yes, I have sold the 10 cars you sent home. In fact, I have just collected the money for Lincoln Navigator. Yes, l'agbara Olorun. Aamin! O daabo. 

(c) Hi. Yeah. This is Don B. Sure, I'm on a brief visit. Mmm, yeah, the building project is still on. I am going there this afternoon to see the contractor and make some payments. Well, those fellas are milking me. There's nothing I can do to prevent it. I just have to complete this project soon. I need a comfortable accommodation in this fucking place you know. 

(d) Hullo, Brother Mark. Ah ah, thank God o. So it is true that you are visiting home? Levels go change! Thank God. When? Friday this week. Wonderful. I will come and pick you at the airport. Which flight? Ok, Virgin Atlantic. Yeah, I will come with the van; it has more space. I can wait to see you again. Bye bye.

In each case above, the speaker is loud, very loud, and makes sure that other people nearby get some impressions about the speaker's international links, wealth, being in possession of some cash, etc. The speaker sacrifices personal security to the advertisement of personal importance and design to win the respect of those within earshot, basically because both speaker and eavesdropper are located in a society where respect for an individual is measured by that person's (unique) material possessions and, by extension, an international connection from which further wealth and social importance are guaranteed. 

So, telephoning in a world of vulgar materialism is a performance of the self and imagined significance of the self. A performance in egoism, its rhetoric attempts to construct a bigger image of the self, assuming that when bodies meet in the public sphere, they have to compete for importance. A larger image of a speaker indirectly asks those around to bow and tremble. 

But, such advertisement of the self is just what the intelligence of the armed robber and kidnapper needs to be "successful." One person's performance of vanity in telephone communication becomes another person's luck in committing a "perfect" crime. Criminals of the brave new world need communication and the vulnerability of the communicating target to do their jobs well. The research units of armed robbery and kidnap gangs in Nigeria need the Nigerian loud telephone talker and boaster to be able to come up with better strike strategies. Do they really need to carry out any rigorous research or to spend so much in trailing targets? No at all? The loud talker is just a sitting duck. 

Of course, it might well be that in some cases of loud telephone conversations, the following are involved:
(1) The person talking loud on the phone is emotionally involved in the conversation and therefore forgetful about the presence of over-hearers;
(2) The person talking loud on the phone is a con artist or some cheat trying to use the details of the conversation, especially the possession of cash or some important overseas connection, to ensnare some gullible targets around;
(3) The person talking loud on the phone is not making any phone call at all but pretending to be doing so as a strategy of deception, the kind of "garagara" that some Nigerians perform when they are in difficulty with law enforcement officers and want to show that they are well connected with some big shot that no one should supposedly not mess with. 
(4) The person may be from a culture where loud talking is normal; in other words, the person has acquired this form of communicative behavior from the indigenous culture and has not been able to adjust to the etiquette of telephoning in public.
(5) The person receiving or making the call is in a noisy environment and is therefore compelled to raise his or her voice beyond a level that would guarantee privacy of talk.

Whatever may be the case, the loudness of call is consciously performed in many cases in the Nigerian context to signify some "loud" social identity imagined to be desirable in a society where such an image appears to have become an ultimate quest. The silence of the lamb appears to be some disadvantage in a society where images of self are in stiff competition. 

Nigerian mobile telephony is some drama to watch. Is it the cellphone loud speaker that is tuned high or the setting to hands-free mode, which makes what the person at the other end is saying very audible to other unconcerned party around? Is it the gesticulations of the gesticulations of the person making or receiving the call: the pointing of hands and other forms of body talk that the person at the other end can never see or read? Don't these forms of body talk in Nigerian mobile phoning culture reveal the fact that the person on the phone is a performer that has forgotten the nature of the context of the interaction, the fact that the addressee is not there physically?

Sissela Bok, in an essay titled "Secrecy and Moral Choice," argues that: "Some capacity for keeping secrets and for choosing when to reveal them, and some access to the underlying experience of secrecy and depth, are indispensable for an enduring sense of identity, for the ability to plan and to act, and for essential belongings. With no control over secrecy and openness, human beings could not remain either sane or free" (2003:10). Linked the tendency to spill one's secrets in a phone call made in public, it does appear that a loud talker is working against the interest of self and of the other person engaged in the exchange. Even if the loud talker does not have any qualms publicizing personal plans and possessions, does the receiver or speaker at the other end of the call have the same disposition? Does the person at the other end know and approve of the fact that other individuals around hear the details of the conversation? 

In the case of (d) above, every individual within earshot-- maybe on a bus or even the marketplace -- now knows that Brother Mark is visiting Nigeria from overseas and is coming with a lot of luggage. Every person listening now knows that Brother Mark has big plans; maybe he intends to buy a house at Lekki or buy a Hummer -- for "levels" to "change." Of course, he would have hard currencies on him. A criminal listening already has so much information to mark this Brother Mark down as an important target. When Brother Mark arrives home in Nigeria and is waylaid or abducted where he has gone to inspect his building project, would that surprise us? One painful thing, though, is that Brother Mark is unaware of the fact that the person he is speaking with on the phone has already advertised his coming home at the marketplace and that he might likely be up for purchase.

Loud talking on the phone at a public place simply suggests the talker as one who lacks the requisite skills on private communication in the presence of others. As countries like Nigeria move on to becoming large markets for modern information technology, there should be some attention to the proper uses of these products of technology. It is definitely not out of place for such education on rational use of technology to be included in  school curricula, public enlightenment  of the ministries of culture and information, etc. Put a product of technology in the hands of someone who lacks knowledge of its proper use, and that person becomes a great risk onto self and others.