Many crave an airplane’s silence — and don’t want cellphones to ruin it

Posted Nov. 28, 2013, at 11:40 a.m.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Might as well have proposed snakes on planes.

Apparently an infestation of vipers would rank only slightly more bothersome than an airplane cabin filled with cellphone conversations.

Why the outcry?

When the flying public heard late last week that the ban on in-flight cellphone use could be lifted, the immediate response made this clear: No one wants to get stuck in a confined space with someone, or many someones, yammering on the phone.

But since then a deeper, more intensely felt truth has emerged: There are few sanctuaries in modern life like the forced quietude of an airplane ride.

That might seem a weird perspective, since most everyone complains about flying. But the loss of that adult timeout is a seriously unhappy prospect. Many people savor — depend upon — the librarylike “shh” of a plane flight.

Paul Dorrell flies frequently for his art business, Leopold Gallery. Phone conversations to the right and to the left would wreck the psychic bonus of the trip, he said.

“The plane is one place you can get away from all the nonsense,” Dorrell said. “It’s meant to be a quiet place, and most airlines try to maintain that. When I get on, I turn my phone off and good riddance.”

Dorrell reads. He takes a nap. He looks out the window and tries to figure out where he is by the terrain far below.

“There’s something about the frantic nature of cellphones, and it would change the environment,” he said.

Few seem to expect any mile-high etiquette to stick. Talk softly? No, we tend to speak louder on cellphones. Avoid intimate subjects? Keep it short? Yeah, like that will happen.

Matt Ungashick of Kansas City flies nearly every week as a manager in sales for Shick USA. For him, maintaining that quiet time on a plane far outweighs any benefit of making phone calls.

“It’s a nice refuge,” he said. “You can text. You can email. But if someone is on the phone next to me, it’ll be impossible to block out. Even putting on headphones wouldn’t matter.”

In fact, he’s a bit relieved when the airline doesn’t offer Wi-Fi on a flight — no obligation to connect even by text and email to all that’s happening on the ground.

John Ratey, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and an attention deficit scholar, understands.

“It’s one of the only places to be at one with your thoughts,” Ratey said.

This is a situation partly brought on by us, he said. We are always going after that next “squirt of dopamine” through our electronic gadgets.

Our devices, and our habits with our devices, are getting in the way of another need — “to sit back, relax, take a deep breath,” Ratey said, which is the very thing facilitated on airplanes by the cellphone ban.

Sherry Prindle, who lives in the area but flies all the time as a speaker for Fred Pryor Seminars, agreed that we’re hyperattached to our phones. Like many business travelers, Prindle doesn’t keep a strict 9-to-5 schedule and typically flies during what would be off hours.

“The plane is this kind of sacred ground, like you drop your weapons at the door,” she said, laughing. “I wish they hadn’t let the cat out of the bag that cellphones don’t cause interference with the plane.”

Respite from the din is no doubt an unmet need, but we are making attempts. On rail commuter routes around the country, designated “quiet cars” are proliferating.

Rules vary, but often cellphone calls are prohibited and passenger conversations are to be limited and subdued. Electronic devices are supposed to be muted. Sometimes overhead lighting is even dimmed.

At a Brooklyn, N.Y., restaurant called Eat, the chef, who was inspired by a stay at a Buddhist monastery in India, offers a “silent dinner” several times a month. It’s a four-course meal, and no talking is allowed. Seats fill up quickly.

About the theory that ignoring a phone call is really no different from ignoring a nearby talk between passengers, which really doesn’t occur all that much: Ratey said that in terms of tuning out, it’s more difficult to disregard one side of a telephone call than two people conversing together nearby.

Bingo, said Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute in Vermont. When you hear one side of a conversation, he said, you tend to become part of it, filling in for the half you’re not hearing.

That’s annoying, he said, and etiquette rules have arisen to deal with it. People are expected in a crowded place to move to a more isolated spot for cellphone calls.

“In an airplane lounge, you can get up and move away,” Post said. “But an airplane, unlike even a train, doesn’t give you that opportunity. Your seat is your seat. And the person next to you can’t move if they’re bothered by your call.”

Talk quietly? When people talk on cellphones, without a good “feedback loop,” their voices tend to go up, Post said.

If cellphone talking is allowed, Post said, certainly people should not discuss personal matters or anything “egregious,” he said.

Limit conversations, he said. Deliver only short messages.

Of course, for that you could text. Which is completely acceptable, Post said.

“When it’s a non-sound, non-verbal thing, it doesn’t intrude on other people,” he said.

It comes down to this about contemporary life: We need quiet. There is no quiet.

That’s why the “forced sanctuary” of the plane ride matters so much to people, said Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, which promotes and teaches meditation techniques.

“There is always more stuff to do, more people to talk to, more calls we should make,” Puddicombe said. “Here the choice is taken out of our hands.”

The nonstop “busyness” of our lives is unnatural, he said.

“In terms of natural balance, inevitably people crave more times of silence and quiet,” Puddicombe said. “It’s universal. It goes beyond faith tradition, culture, background. It is truly part of the human experience to want to experience that peace and quiet of mind.”

Vince Eimer, director of Christ’s Peace House of Prayer in Easton, Kan., a Catholic retreat ministry, said that those who are “dropped into silence” start to recognize their need for it. Such a quiet period helps you “touch your core,” he said.

“I have seen people transformed through the power of silence and knowing what to do with the silence when they’re in it,” Eimer said. “People on planes are getting a taste of it.”

There are good reasons not to panic — yet.

While the Federal Communications Commission said there are no longer technical or safety reasons to prohibit cellphone use, individual airlines would decide whether to allow cellphone conversations on their planes. The proposal is on the FCC’s agenda at a Dec. 12 meeting.

Several airlines have said they won’t allow it. And the Association of Flight Attendants union opposes the proposal, saying in a statement that passengers overwhelmingly reject the idea and that “any situation that is loud, divisive and possibly disruptive is not only unwelcome but also unsafe.”

The airlines’ tune could change, according to some industry watchers, if in-flight cellphone use became a moneymaker for them.

If the price for airplane calls outside the United States is an indication, the cost could hit $3 or $4 a minute, which presumably would keep many off the phone — except for the showoffs.

On a recent flight with his daughter and son-in-law and their 6-month old baby, Ratey said, the couple brought along treat bags — peace offerings — for nearby passengers in case their daughter became fussy. Nothing destroys the cabin calm like a crying baby.

That would be a good model in case cellphone conversations get the thumbs-up.

“Maybe if you’re going to make a call, you buy everybody a drink,” he said.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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