A little over two years ago, I wrote an article about mobile phone usage in public called Banning Cell Phones in Public Places. I was, and still am, of the opinion that most public spaces are not the place to whip out your mobile phone and start loudly talking about your personal life, to the detriment of the people around you — particularly when the people can do nothing to get away from you, such as on a bus. Last night, I discovered in horror how easy it is to become that person on the phone.

For the past week, I have been having a heated debate with my mother about life, and yesterday, when my train to Kew Gardens returned to cellular coverage, I saw I had a message waiting for me from her.  Her message was brief, but mother made it clear she still was still unconvinced of my side of the argument. Rather than stew and have it out with her later in person, I decided to quickly return her call and tell her again why I was correct. That was the first mistake that I made.

I called from the train and explained my position to her in Romanian — that is our clearest shared language.  I thought using Romanian in public would be the most polite thing to do since most people in the United States do not speak Romanian, and those around me would be better able to ignore me because they would not understand what I was saying.  That turned out to be the second mistake I made.  A lot of people who live in Queens, New York speak Romanian — so many, in fact, that there is a Romanian language news program that comes from Queens.

As it became clear she was still not getting what I was trying to say, I started to get a little upset. I got a funny look from someone to my right — someone who had a few very obvious Romanian features, now that I think about it.  I should have remembered there is no such thing as coincidence and just said good-bye and hung up the phone.  I didn’t.  I continued the conversation.

A minute or so later, I got another nasty look — this time from someone else on the train. They said, “Excuse me!” with the implication that I was speaking too loudly. I was crestfallen. I picked up my bags and walked as far away from them as I could and told my mother that I had to go and that I would call her back.

A few minutes later, I got off the train and called her back and promptly told her I was never talking on the phone on the train again. It was a humiliating and humbling experience yet I have learned a lot from it — namely, that I need to stop thinking bad things about people who speak on their mobile phones. The question “Don’t they realize how loud they are being?” can now be answered by me — sometimes we don’t know. I suppose I should take my own advice and quit using mobile phones in public spaces.


  1. You should really tell us the secret of the argument between you and your mother, Gordon, because you made its high stakes a vital part of your story!
    When you wrote — “had a few very obvious Romanian features” — what, exactly, does that mean and imply?
    Are you sure those around you spoke and understood Romanian? Did you test them by speaking directly to them? Or were you just being loud and they didn’t like the sounds you were making?

  2. I’m having a friend of mine stay with me for a few months and she is vehemently opposed to it — and every day she comes up with a wacky conspiracy theory as to why it’s a bad idea. I keep dispelling them all but she’s great at making them up regularly.
    I should have clarified — they were obvious Romanian features to me. To me, of course, in what I now must admit was a little bit of a state of paranoia due to the particular look this fellow gave me. It is entirely possible (and probable!) that nobody understood me but I was just being gruff and loud! I have been told that I am more aggressive sounding when I speak Romanian.

  3. Ack! We would’ve loved to read more about the core disagreement with your mother. It sounds wonderful and fascinating as two generations battle over the idea of friendship and the meaning of “stranger” and, perhaps, even “trespassing.”
    What are the Romanian features? Describe them to us!

  4. Great question, David.
    It’s hard to explain, really — I think I wrote “obvious features” because I’m not sure how to explain “I have seen so many Romanians in my life that I know someone is Romanian just by looking at them” without resorting to such explanations like “intuition” or “gut instinct” — sounds a bit odd but I’m almost always right, somehow. 🙂 (Except I think I was wrong last night!)

  5. Now you’re playing with us, Gordon! You know exactly what you meant and we sort of do, too, but we are not the experts on Romanian features and instincts. You are!
    Your next article assignment must be: “How to Recognize a Romanian on a Train.”
    We thank you.

  6. I might get a visit from the Secret Romanian Mafia after such a visit. Oh no! I’ve revealed their existence! I should hide.

  7. Ha! Gordon, I feel for you!
    I despise the idea of using cellphone in any public transport and it really gets horrific when the language is unknown…happens with me quite regularly in the airport/ train stations etc…
    What do I do? Ummm…next time you fight you will know… 🙂

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