Miss Conduct

Cellphone meanies

When friends choose calls over you, plus when to celebrate birthdays.

By Robin Abrahams
July 19, 2009
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At a recent lunch, two girlfriends repeatedly picked up their cellphones while we ate. This is happening to me more and more frequently. Why can’t people see how rude this is? C.L. / Westwood

They probably don’t see how rude it is because 1) answering a ringing phone is seductively convenient, and 2) people like you and me are too cowardly to call them on it. I have several girlfriends who will leave their phones on and answer them when we are eating or hanging out together, too, and I find it both rude and hurtful (a distinction under discussion on my blog at And I haven’t said a peep to any of them. They undoubtedly think I’m perfectly fine with their cellphone habits or happy to indulge a small rudeness on their part in exchange for some tolerance of theirs (which I can always use) for one of my own eccentricities.

Unless you are expecting a call that you know you’ll have to take -- from your child’s baby sitter, your mother’s oncologist, or the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announcing this year’s Nobel Prize recipients (winners get those calls in the morning, typically, so this excuse would only work at brunch) -- keep your cellphone off during social occasions. If you are going to turn it on, explain briefly why, and don’t take any other calls besides the one you’ve said you’re waiting for (within reason; if you’re expecting the baby sitter but it’s the Royal Swedish Academy on the line instead, pick up).

If you’re not going to do this, think about the message you are sending to your friend: “You are really important to me. So important that I will let anyone who has my phone number drag me away from you and force me to converse with them without having to give a good reason!”

So maybe, C.L., it’s time for you and me to get a little more assertive about this business. What say, the next time one of our girlfriends answers a nonessential phone call while we’re out with her, we say, “If you’re not expecting a particular call, do you mind turning your phone off? It makes me feel devalued and also really awkward when you’re talking to someone else and I’m here fiddling with my menu and trying to look like I’m not eavesdropping.” I’ll try it if you will.

I work for a small company where we enjoy celebrating birthdays with cake. As my birthday approached, my boss realized he would be on vacation on my special day. He asked if it would be OK if we waited until he got back the next day to do the cake. I was caught off guard and replied, “But that’s not my birthday!” I realized later it wasn’t a big deal, and I feel kind of bad. At the same time, I think it was a little inconsiderate of him to ask me to celebrate on another day because he would be away. What should I have done?

N.B. / Burlington

You should have celebrated when the boss was available, for heaven’s sake. Does anyone over the age of 5 honestly care whether his or her birthday is celebrated on the actual calendar date? Birthday festivities are social events, not astrological ones; we celebrate our own birthdays and those of dignitaries such as presidents Lincoln and Washington when our culture deems it convenient to do so. Your boss wasn’t being rude in the slightest, but rather was making a friendly gesture by wishing to be included in your celebration, which should have been accepted in like spirit.

If you find yourself often blurting out childish objections like “But that’s not my birthday!” then work to develop the habit of breathing deeply before speaking.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Her new book is Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners.

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