Hey, customer: Hang up and order!

Restaurants and shops adopt different policies to deal with patrons using cell phones.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:51 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It was the day a customer threw a sandwich in her face that Subway manager Rachel Grimes knew she had to do something about people who try to order while talking on their cell phones.

Grimes had put the wrong ingredients on the sub because the customer was talking on his phone to the woman he was ordering for.

“He was telling her what (toppings) we had, and I thought he was telling me what to put on (the sandwich),” Grimes said.

Minutes later, the woman entered the store and hurled the sandwich at Grimes.

“It took a while for me to understand who she was because I didn’t even wait on her,” Grimes said. “She started telling me what happened and I was like, ‘Now I understand.’ ”

The episode three years ago in Fulton prompted Grimes, who now manages the Nifong Subway in Columbia, to prohibit her customers from talking on their cell phones while ordering.

“I think it’s very rude,” Grimes said. “And personally, if I’m the one starting the sandwich and they’re on the phone, I will bypass them and go to the next person.” Or she’ll let them write their order down.

The Nifong Subway is among a growing number of restaurants and other businesses in Columbia that are asking patrons to refrain from using their cell phones while interacting with employees. The workers’ angst, one expert says, is symptomatic of a society trying to keep pace with the public intrusion that technology such as cell phones can bring.

Grimes’ Subway has a sign near its counter that discourages customers from using cell phones. Other Columbia businesses such as The Candy Factory and the Tiger Sinclair gas station have similar signs.

At The Candy Factory, a handwritten sign in multicolored marker reads, “Please refrain from talking on your cell phone while at the counter.” Manager Amy Atkinson said no one at the store has thrown candy at her. The sign, she said, is a courtesy, not a store policy.

“The customer chooses candy out of our case,” she said. ”In doing so, there is a lot of interaction, and when they’re on their cell phone it makes the conversation more difficult.”

Still, Atkinson won’t refuse to do business with customers who are on their cell phones; sometimes, they’ll whisper “thank you” to her before they leave the cash register.

Tiger Sinclair is more direct. “Talk to us, not your cell phone, please. Thank you,” the sign reads.

Owner Cindy Mutrux put up the sign after a young woman came to the gas station and asked for help with the pump. When the woman wouldn’t get off her cell phone to receive help, Mutrux walked away.

“She wasn’t paying attention to anything I was telling her, and I thought if she really needed my help, she would put the cell phone down,” Mutrux said.

Mutrux has heard a few complaints from customers who think the sign is rude, she said but most customers have embraced her courage as a business owner to speak up. Some customers tell her that grocery stores and Wal-Mart should post similar signs.

“I don’t care what Becky and Susie did last night,” Mutrux said, referring to the kinds of conversations she hears in her store. “It shuts off customer contact when somebody has a cell phone in their ear. I like to get to know my customers.”

Movie theaters, church — you name it. Mutrux said she has heard cell phones ring in many such places. Her son, an MU student, has told her about students who answer cell phones in class.

“Is there no place that is sacred?” she asked.

Not really, according to sociologist Rich Ling. He’s a senior research scientist at Telenor R&D, a telecommunications services provider near Oslo, Norway. Ling, who last fall was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, studies the way people in the United States and abroad react to cell phone use. He says the cell phone is naturally prone to disrupting the lives of others.

“People (who use cell phones) are sort of colonizing public spaces in an audible sense, and that makes people uncomfortable,” Ling said. “We have had a lot of rules about how to be a customer and how to be an attendant behind a counter. Suddenly, here is (the cell phone) that erupts and disturbs our scripts. We’re coming up with ways of dealing with that, but we still haven’t figured it out.”

Courtesy, Ling said, is the “lubrication” that cell phone users and others must use to solve conflicts like the one Mutrux encountered.

“She’s saying, ‘I’m worth talking to, too’,” he said of Mutrux and people in her position. “‘Just because I’m giving you a service and you’re having to pay me to deal with this, doesn’t mean you can’t treat me like another person.’ The girl was not there enough for the gas station owner,” he said.

“At the same time, maybe she was breaking up with her boyfriend or dealing with some urgent thing that really needed dealing with,” Ling continued. “Neither of them is routinized enough to deal with that situation in a more courteous way.”

Mutrux has her own solution.

“I think it’s back to the golden rule, the simple things in life, and one of those things is respect,” she said. “I think society has just went blind to all that is going on around us. The cell phone usage, the loud music, I could go on and on. Everyone has just gotten so used to it that they don’t say anything anymore, and I think it’s time we speak up.”

Jonathan Faucett, who has worked with Mutrux for two years, seems to be ahead of the game when it comes to adjusting to cell phones. Customers who talk on them don’t bother him at all.

“They can do cartwheels and jumping jacks” as long as they pay for their gas, Faucett said. It’s people who talk on their cell phones while driving that annoy him.

“I’ve been cut off twice this week, and I’ve almost been hit,” he said.

Sometimes, Ling said, technology enters the public sphere, but society’s response lags behind.

“As a sociologist, it’s interesting because it’s just society working out the way it reacts to a new technology,” Ling said. “We’re having to come up with rules as we go. It’s not always easy and it’s not always conflict free.”

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