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Mobile phones, movies and etiquette

Jesse Walker has a nice piece in Reason magazine about whether U.S. state agencies like the FCC should ban cinemas from trying to jam calls to mobile phones. Seems a pretty clear-cut case to me – so long as the jamming is made clear to customers before they buy a ticket, then the cinemas, if they are commercial entities and privately owned, are entitled to do this. Cinemas that are privately owned can set whatever rules on the behaviour of customers that they like, including telling them, on pain of expulsion, to turn mobiles off or to silent, to observe minimal standards of dress code, and whatever.

In my own cinema-going experience in Britain and the United States, I have hardly ever been inconvenienced by mobile users, although I may have been lucky. Once, in a stifling hot cinema in Chelsea, I sat next to a rather annoying French couple, one of whom insisted on phoning her friends several times and who finally shut up after another customer told them to do so. Most people seem to get the message to turn the things off or to silent mode.

I guess what this story tells us is how people are almost surgically attached to their phones (one day that may literally be true, perhaps in a few decades time). I have occasionally gone out from my flat without a mobile phone and felt almost naked without it, but also experienced a certain freedom of being out of reach for an hour or so. It is almost as if I have forgotten what it is like not to be contactable instantly via these machines.

A final etiquette point is that I notice people are often less punctual for meetings sometimes because there is this assumption in the back of folks’ minds that they can just “phone ahead” and say that they are going to be late. Before mobiles existed, if people did not keep an appointment, it did not happen. Perhaps one side effect of mobile phones then is to make us less rigorous in sticking to a schedule. It is not a good or bad thing, but that seems to be the pattern.

38 comments to Mobile phones, movies and etiquette

  • The big problem with cell phone jammers is that it’s nearly impossible to do that sort of thing in a sharply defined box like a movie theater. To get a decent signal degradation (to the point where nobody in the building could get reception), you’d need enough signal out of your jammer to cover an area several times the floor plan of the building.

    In other words, while you have a perfect right to block that sort of thing inside your theater, you’re also looking at being responsible for jamming the calls of the people who are standing or walking right outside of your building, or in parts of the building you don’t have control over (like that store selling cell phones right next door to you in the mall).

    Even a “paint job” blocker could cause someone on the far side of the building from a cell tower to have no signal.

    One heart attack, one emergency phone call someone can’t make, and you’re up for some really appropriate and large lawsuits…

  • Euan Gray

    The big problem with cell phone jammers is that it’s nearly impossible to do that sort of thing in a sharply defined box like a movie theater

    Faraday cage.


  • Richard Easbey

    I hope this catches on. I LOATHE cell phones.. and may be the only person left in the U.S. who doesn’t have one.

  • Cinemas that are privately owned can set whatever rules on the behaviour of customers that they like, including telling them, on pain of expulsion, to turn mobiles off or to silent, to observe minimal standards of dress code, and whatever.

    You mean like how bars should be allowed to decide whether they permit smoking?

    Common sense will get you nowhere with these people.

  • permanent expat

    The only reason I bought a (now very ancient) cellphone was that the landline in my remote location was unreliable. Except for when I travel a distance, which is rare, I never use it. Most folk these days appear to have one grafted to the side of the head. They are, however, a boon to busy people. If only good manners & social responsibility had kept pace with technology. (I would hazard a guess that EG has more than two “Handys”)

  • How I hate standing behind someone at the cashier’s station in a supermarket who is talking to someone else on a cell phone, especially on one of those “wearable” horrors. They don’t pay attention to the cashier or to anything else. It’s simply bad manners. What really is the difference between a cell-phone addict and a hobo wacko who is constantly talking out loud to Jesus or Satan? Continuous contactability also limits one’s ability to appreciate the real world and to make decisions for yourself, as an individual. On the bright side, those who reject cell phones have a definite advantage. We actually appreciate and can respond to the world as it is. Resistance to cell-phone Borgism is not futile. They will never assimilate me.

  • anomdebus

    Wouldn’t there be a dead zone when the faraday cage is situtated between a person and the cell tower?

  • BCN

    There may be a dead spot between the person and the cell tower, but that would be no different if I built a really thick wall for some reason on my property. I don’t think it is really my problem.

    Now if I could get one for my car that would cut service to people who are driving poorly because they are on the phone I would be interested.


  • Verity

    I’m the last person in Mexico without a cell phone. I loathe them, although it would probably be a good idea to have one for emergencies.

    Manners, as mentioned above, have not kept pace with technology. Workmen ring your doorbell, and when you answer it, they walk in, regally ignoring one, talking to someone on their cell phone. It is bizarre.

  • 1327

    Its very difficult to adapt an existing building or room into a perfect Faraday cage or at least an effective one. Even when I have been involved in projects where a Faraday cage is built within a room we still found that in city centres there are enough cell bases around that a modern phone with a sensitive front end would often just still work. If you live in the UK type your postcode into this website to see just how many bases there are around.

    As for jamming it wouldn’t be easy in Western Europe where there are now 2 different phone signal types operating on 3 different frequency bands. If you wanted to stop all phones ringing you would have to jam all three bands.

  • Mike Lorrey

    Faraday cages for whole theaters is expensive. I’d prefer an entertaining bit during the previews, perhaps with some bad guy with a big gun kneecapping a guy in a fictional theater for chatting on the phone during the movie….

    Ejection seats, yeah, that’s the ticket…

    Politeness as a social virtue arose from a culture in which people dueled over slights against one’s honor…. I miss duelling….

    That all being said, I have a fairer proposal: any phone call out of a theater will result in the theater automatically calling the cellphone back and adding a $10 charge to their phone bill.

  • It is tough for doctors on call to go places where their phones don’t work. Some folks require them 24 hrs/day…

  • joy

    I was satisfied with the service you provided.Thank you very much.

  • joy

    was satisfied with the service you provided.Thank you very much.(Link)

  • kit

    I’ve heard your name for long time.

  • Verity

    Folks, don’t go there. These are socialist little scabs using suggestive comments to get a record of you on their links. Phishing.

  • cass

    did you see what they did with PDA’s in Vegas …
    This is pretty cool

    Nevada Legalizes Gambling on PDAs Within Casinos

  • Rob


    I think it’s considerably more likely that they’re just ordinary link spammers than ‘socialists’. They’re not ‘phishing’ as they’re not asking for any personal details (or, indeed, any details at all). The most information they’ll get from me if I click the link is that an unidentified person in the North-West of England followed a link from samizdata.net – hardly terrifying, considering that such information passes between sites every time you click a link – any link.

    Whilst a certain level of suspicion about dodgy websites is healthy, paranoia isn’t. In this case I’d suggest not commenting unless you have a clear grasp of the subject in question.

    That said, they’re still spammers and, for that, deserve to burn in their own special level of hell.

  • David

    Bugger – clicked on the link before reading the following comments.
    Curses, I fell for their sinister plan.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    You mean like how bars should be allowed to decide whether they permit smoking?

    Indeed KipEsquire, I don’t imagine that in practice, the authorities in Britain give a toss about private property rights at all. I was discussing what the true princples are at stake, just for those who might be interested.

  • Dave F

    My local library requires cellphones to be switched off. If someone’s phone does ring, an assistant immediately arrives and ordersthem to switch off — or leave.

  • Instead of telling people to turn them off…why don’t they just say to put it on silent? And if they need to speak to someone leave the room?

  • You should try going to the cinema in the Middle East. Umpteen locals taking 10 minute calls in the theatre, completely ignoring the objections of everyone else. Pisses me right off.

  • Verity

    I think everyone deserves a second chance, so people in theatres and cinemas should get one warning. If their phone rings again, or if they are suddenly motivated to make a phone call, I am afraid they should be taken out into the lobby and given a lethal injection by the boy who mans the popcorn machine or, in the case of the theatre, an usher. He or she would be subdued by fellow theatre goers.

    Once dead, they should be propped up against the wall, their mobile scotch-taped to their ear, as a warning.

  • MarkE


    Never had you down as a liberal – you never know who you mix with on the net. I prefer the sort of thing the inquisition made famous.

    Having been properly brought up I (almost) always remember to switch it off in theatres etc, and die of embarrassment if I forget and it rings (says more about me than I probably want to). Mrs MarkE is wrestling with her conscience as we have tickets for Saturday, and she is cursed with a hacking cough. I’m torn because I know she won’t be the only one in the threatre causing distraction, but perhaps I’m pleased she’s not dropped to their level.

  • Verity

    Frankly, you have absolutely no right to take a mobile phone into the theatre with you. You elevate your own importance over the couple of hundred people sharing the space with you who have paid money to lose themselves in a performance.

  • Nick M

    I’m with Verity on this, though I suspect that she may not be entirely serious about executing the miscreants, life with heavy labour and no chance of parole should be sufficient, especially if they are compelled to listen to the Nokia Tune played from an old 3310 all day, forever.

    I also despise people in cinemas talking or eating noisly. I especially hate inane plot-related conversations, “So is he a goodie or a baddy, him there in the glasses?”.

  • Sigivald

    People have every “right”, so to speak, to take a phone into the theatre with them.

    The impolite bastardry comes with using it in the theatre for anything but an emergency (and in that case, one should still leave the theatre ASAP while dealing with the call).

    People who are on call for work or for family medical conditions (I know people in both groups) should hardly be constrained from ever seeing a film simply because you’re (quite justly) irritated at people talking up a storm out of sheer impoliteness and bastardry.

    The solution, especially from a libertarian perspective, is not bans, but shaming. Not enough of that going around anymore.

  • Bombadil

    The solution is a good home theater system. As these get cheaper (you can put something pretty damn acceptable together for less than $2000 now, complete package) they will provide an incentive for theater owners to come up with innovative solutions to the problem of obnoxious patrons.

    Nifty thing, that invisible hand.

  • Nick M

    No, Bombadil!
    Going to the cinema is about getting out and having fun. It’s about a shared experience. Would you like to be the only person in a club, restaurant or bar? I’ve got 42″ of monitors right in front of me, Dolby surround and a DVD rewriter, but I still like to go out. I still love the anticipation when the feature is about to start and (most) people hush. You don’t get that at home.

    And it’s also absolutely u/s for a date. I’m sure you seduced Goldberry by saying “Come back to mine, my screen is very wide, very wide indeed”.

  • Bombadil

    Nick M:

    I agree that going to the cinema used to be about getting out and having fun. Now it is about straining to hear the dialogue issuing from the 30 speakers scattered about the theater over the noise of chewing, candy wrappers, and other patrons chatting with each other.

    Also, never underestimate the drawing power of a quality home theater setup to the fairer sex … you just have to show the right movies 😉

  • Jamming cell phones by broadcasting signal on in the cellular frequency band is illegal in the US under Federal law; the Communications Act of 1934 as amended. It also constitutes trespass on the cellular providers’ lease of spectrum. As a cellular optimization specialist I sincerely hope Uncle Whiskers prosecutes jammers to the full extent of the law.

    I have no problem with Faraday cage structures. The architecture of cellular communications is such that at any time a cellular phone is in communication with more than one site sector, at least in any location busy enough to support a cinema.

  • Johnathan

    Nick M makes a good point about the shared experience of watching a film in a big cinema. I would add that I occasionally like to watch rugby and football matches down the pub with my friends rather than sit at home.

  • Sharing a darkened room with a bunch of strangers…yeah my idea of a good time. Wait until it comes out on DVD, get to keep the film if you wish and do whatever the hell you want in your own damn house. Going to the movies is never fun…always a disappointment thank god for DVDs and satillite.

  • Julian Taylor

    I recall visiting someone in hospital in Israel a few years ago. At the entrance they had warnings to switch off your mobile phone, accompanied by a clear very polite warning that anyone using a mobile phone beyond that point would have the handset confiscated and destroyed.

    Very authoritarian but that’s all you need in cinemas or theatres.

    Sharing a darkened room with a bunch of strangers…yeah my idea of a good time.

    You spend your whole life living in a room with the curtains drawn and the lights off – wtf is new about that?

  • Nick M

    Andrew Ian Dodge,

    How sad.

    If you are happy never to mix, what are you doing on the web?

  • Verity

    Nick M – You think people go to the movies or the theatre to mix? Wot?

    The movies are full of ghastly people and the screens now aren’t that much bigger than you could buy for your own home if you were so inclined. And at home, you can hit freeze and go and fix drinks at will (that’s why comedies are always funnier towards the end) and you don’t have to be brought out of the story by people behind you popping their gum, chatting on their mobiles and chatting to one another in normal voices. Why anyone would step inside a cinema is a mystery.

    With the theatre, that’s more problematic. And for the ballet, I am sorry, but ushers should be allowed to shoot to kill, but using silencers. And the bodies should not be removed until after the dancers had taken their last bows.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The movies are full of ghastly people and the screens now aren’t that much bigger than you could buy for your own home if you were so inclined.

    I used to think that I was a bit of a curmugeon until I started to read Verity’s comments on this blog!

    I agree with her about some of the advantages of watching a big tv at home, though. You cannot serve alcohol in most UK cinemas, as far as I know, and it is nice to be able to slump out on a long sofa and pause the film when you want and fast-forward past any trailers and suchlike.