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Dial 'S' for shame

Embarrassed by your clunky old cellphone, the one that doesn't do anything but (gasp!) make phone calls? You're not alone.

Caitlin Gallagher and Amy West (Yoon S. Byun / Globe Staff) Caitlin Gallagher (left) laughs about her out-of-date phone with with Amy West (right) at Les Zygomates.
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / November 13, 2008
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Meetings with architects made Chris Glionna especially nervous. That was when the director of operations for the Aquitaine Group kept his clunky old Sanyo cellphone hidden in his bag for fears of chortles and stares. The bulky, blue rubber phone had served him well for five years. But Glionna, who oversees five restaurants, including stylish spots like Gaslight and Union Bar and Grille, worried that his old phone was sending the wrong message.

"People who worked with me were saying 'Dude, what's with the paperweight? That's so 1985,'" said the 43-year-old Glionna. "I even had [vendors] laugh at me."

Seeing more of his colleagues upgrade to sleek new smart phones - the name applied to iPhones, BlackBerries, and others that connect to the Internet - Glionna had enough of phone shame. He bought a BlackBerry in September.

"In the end, I honestly thought the phone was hurting me. I'm not an insecure person, but I was really insecure about my phone."

As the number of people carrying smart phones climbs, those with antiquated mobiles are feeling a creeping sense of embarrassment over their late conversion to new technology. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the number of iPhones, BlackBerries, and other smart phones has nearly tripled in the past year. In July 2007, only 8 percent of Americans owned smart phones. By July of this year, that number had soared to 22 percent. A spokesman for the CEA says that percentage should continue to climb with last month's release of another high-profile techie tool - the much-coveted Google G1 phone.

"You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of phone they carry," says image consultant Doris Klietmann. "If you have someone with a BlackBerry, you can usually assume they're educated and they either earn a good salary or they have an important job that requires them to be in constant communication. You can also assume that someone with a 16-gigabyte iPhone also makes a decent amount of money and is someone who always has to have the newest thing. People who have these phones are conscious of things like fashion designers and like to stay on top of trends."

Increasingly, the type of cellphone we chat on - or text with - says as much about us as the way we dress or the car we drive, according to CNET senior editor Kent German.

"The cellphone is different from most other pieces of technology because it's something you use all the time and carry with you everywhere you go," says German, on the phone from his office in San Francisco. (For the record, German's currently testing a Sony-Ericsson C902, which isn't available in the United States). "It's really an extension of your personality and style, unlike a camera or a computer. That's why you have the kiosks in the mall where you can get the plates, charms, and all those phone accessories."

No longer boxy and saddled with retractable antennae, mobile phones have increasingly emerged as personal signifiers and status symbols, separating the early adopters from the technophobes, Mac users from PC fans, the flashy and fashion-forward from the practical and low-key.

The first tingle of phone shame could be traced back to the 1987 film "Wall Street," when actor Michael Douglas wielded a mammoth cellphone on a breezy beach, and moviegoers went home and looked at their old reliable landlines with scorn. But technology trend watchers say the proliferation of smart phones has turned phone shame into an epidemic.

"A lot of gadgets these days have become more of a style or status symbol," said Steve Kidera of the CEA. "Look at TVs. It used to be that people would hide them in the armoires. But now they're prominently displayed like art."

Now, "an iPhone is like the Rolex of phones," he continued. "You want people to see you on your iPhone or your BlackBerry to show your status."

Caitlin Gallagher, a 32-year-old writer from Cambridge, found out the hard way how phones can be an extension of your style - or lack thereof. When she renewed her cell service contract last spring she opted for the cheapest phone available. Ever since then, her giant Samsung phone has become the butt of jokes among her friends.

"My friend's 65-year-old dad just got the same phone as mine," Gallagher says. "It's basically the least cool phone you could own. My friend Greg told me that my phone is so big that I don't actually need to call anyone on it. He said I can just tap people with it from three states away."

Gallagher said her phone is so large that most people are too polite to make fun of it in front of her, but she suspects that they are enjoying a hearty laugh at her expense when she exits the room. Making matters worse, nearly all of her college friends from MIT now sport iPhones. And even when Gallagher isn't with them, Facebook reminds her of their sleek phones by informing her who's added the Facebook application on their iPhone.

If phone shame's painful for adults, it's dire for tweens and teens who've been weaned on the Internet. For some middle schoolers, not having a smart phone isn't just uncool, it's horribly inconvenient, since their communication often revolves around texting and e-mail. Seventh grader Sarah Greene of Jamaica Plain says she's so embarrassed by her cellphone that she leaves it home when she goes to school.

"It's really not that cool," the 12-year-old says of her phone. "It's one of those durable ones, and it doesn't have a type pad on it. It's kind of old-fashioned."

Greene has made a habit of asking her mother, Eleanor, for a smart phone. Eleanor Greene reports that a cooler phone is "the number one item on Sarah's Christmas list, which I've already gotten."

"It's sometimes used as a negotiating tool," the elder Greene says. "She'll say 'Mom, if I get straight A's can I upgrade my phone?' I always roll my eyes and don't give a straight answer. You know, hold her off as long as I can. It's what mothers do best."

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

Dial 'S' for shame (Yoon S. Byun / Globe Staff) Caitlin Gallagher is ashamed of her phone (center).
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