April 14, 2005

Faking It

Do you "fake it" on your cell phone?

Yes, frequently.

No, never.

I've done it a few times but I don't make a habit of it.

I don't have a cell phone.

It's 7:50 and Rob just called me from the airport in San Francisco. He
usually calls at 8 every night so that he can say goodnight to the kids
as I'm putting them to sleep. But his call was ten minutes early so I
knew something was up. (Yes, we tend to be that precise.) I was
beginning to worry that his plane was delayed but all he said was, "I'm
just letting you know that I'll call at 8."

so Rob can be a bit odd at times, but this was just stupid-odd. Then he
explained, "I'm walking past the information guy and I hate talking to

There you have it. Rob was faking it. Though technically,
to be a true faker, there shouldn't have been a live person on the
other line. (Rob confessed later that he used to speak (his very bad
version of) French when he'd walk by these guys. But then he started
feeling bad about that. So he tried the cell phone approach instead. I
don't know why he can't just do what I do -- ignore those guys.

The New York Times had an article today about faking it. (I'll post the article below.)

curious. How many of you fake it? How often? Do you call a weather
service or some other non-human so that it seems like there's really
someone on the other end of the line? (I'd ask this as a poll but that
ability either seems to have been taken away, or I it's not an option
while I'm using this old clunker computer of mine, seeing as the newer
one is in the shop.)

Reach Out and Touch No One

Published: April 14, 2005

cashier had already rung up Keri Wooster's items when Ms. Wooster
realized she didn't have her wallet. She dashed to her car and returned
empty-handed to face the line of fidgeting customers she had kept
waiting, a cellphone pressed to her ear. "Jordan, did you take my
wallet out of my purse?" she asked in parental exasperation, as she
made her way back to the checkout counter. "I'm holding up this line!
You need to put things back where you find them."

Ms. Wooster,
who has no children, was not actually talking to a Jordan, or indeed to
anyone at all. But her monologue served its purpose, eliciting
sympathetic looks from the frustrated crowd at her local Wal-Mart.

"My instincts just took over," Ms Wooster, 28, who lives in Houston, said later. "Everyone was like, 'Oh, kids.' "

Wooster is by no means alone in the practice of cellphone subterfuge.
As cellular phone conversations have permeated public space, so, it
seems, have fake cellular phone conversations.

How many? It is
hard to say. But James E. Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers
University, says his classroom research suggests that plenty of the
people talking on the phone around you are really faking it. In one
survey Dr. Katz conducted, more than a quarter of his students said
they made fake calls. He found the number hard to believe. Then in
another class 27 of 29 students said they did it.

"People are
turning the technology on its head," Dr. Katz said. "They are taking a
device that was designed to talk to people who are far away and using
it to communicate with people who are directly around them."

Call them cellphonies.

stage calls to avoid contact, whether with neighbors or panhandlers,
co-workers or supervisors, Greenpeace canvassers or Girl Scouts. Some
do it to impress those within earshot, others so they don't look
lonely. Men talk to their handsets while they're checking out women.
Women converse with the air to avert unwanted approaches by men.

phone shutterbugs fake being on the phone so they can get a good angle
without looking suspicious. And certain cellular vigilantes fake for
the benefit of real callers who are oblivious to the rules of common

"I fake phone talk to get a point across," said Ty
Hammond, of Pullman, Wash., who once forced an apology from a woman
spewing excessively personal details into her cellphone in an elevator
by shouting (made-up) escapades of his own into his (powered-off)
phone. "People need to know phone etiquette and fake phone calling is a
great tool for showing them."

The fake phone call has an
etiquette, or at least a technique, all its own. Inexperienced
cellphonies risk exposure with their limited repertoire of "uh-huhs."
Sophisticated simulators achieve authenticity by re-enacting their side
of an actual dialogue. Or they call voice-activated phone trees, so it
sounds like someone is talking on the other end.

"I'll take a
previous experience and pretend like I'm talking to somebody about it
so I'm not just making up something off the top of my head," said John
Wilcox, a phone salesman in Albany who often appears to be on his
cellphone when a problem customer walks in. "Maybe it's a snowboarding
move: 'Remember that back flip with the twist and the somersault?' "

Wilcox used the technique as he waited for the right moment to approach
a woman he saw in a store at the mall recently. "I couldn't just stand
there looking like an idiot," he said.

For Micheal K. Meyer, the key is the look on your face when you "answer."

grimace a little bit, act really interested in what you're not really
hearing on the other end," said Mr. Meyer, an aircraft mechanic in Lake
City, Fla., who has feigned hundreds of calls. "You've got to sell it."

lawyer in San Francisco said she frequently pretends to be finishing up
a conference call that she took on the road so her colleagues don't
give her a hard time about walking in late.

"Pretending is very
flexible," noted the lawyer, 37, who insisted on anonymity to protect
her ability to continue using the ruse. "You can end the conversation
whenever you want."

On many handsets, pressing the speakerphone
button makes a ringing sound that fakers can pretend is a call coming
in. But pros counsel to turn the phone off to prevent your cover from
being blown. Or at least set it to vibrate.

That is a lesson
Scott Spector, 15, learned the hard way, when his phone started
blasting his "American Idol Theme" ringtone as he was pretending to
talk into it in the hall at school last month.

"I felt like such a dork," said Scott, of Buffalo Grove, Ill.

Katz of Rutgers said the practice first drew his attention when
students in focus groups he had organized to study a wide range of
cellphone use began mentioning it, unprompted.

The habit, Dr.
Katz said, is the latest technological twist in a culture that has long
embraced various forms of dissembling in the name of image, from
designer knockoff handbags to plastic surgery. Some fakers admit to
programming their phones to call them at a certain time to show off
their ring tones; others wrap up make-believe Hollywood deals in front
of people they want to impress.

And phantom callers are often
simply trying to cope with social anxiety by showing that they have
someone to call, even if they don't. One of Dr. Katz's students said
she pretended to use her cellphone when she was out with a group of
other college-age women who were all on theirs. Another did it to
escape from a fancy boutique where the prices were beyond her means
without speaking to a salesperson.

In that sense fake callers
are may not be so different from a lot of real callers, who are always
partly performing for others even as they as they appear to withdraw
into their own private space in public.

"The cellphone allows
people to show strangers that they belong, that they are part of a
community somewhere," said Christine Rosen, who studies the social
impact of technology at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in
Washington. "Whether or not it's a fictional call, on some level that's
why we're doing it."

But the surfeit of counterfeit calls
underscores the lengths to which people feel compelled to go to project
an image for others. Sometimes the impulse is almost subconscious.

Konchar, a network administrator in Canton, Ohio, had just hung up
after sitting in his parked car behind a strip mall talking to a friend
one afternoon, when he saw people emerging from the employee's entrance
to one of the stores. Quickly, he put the phone back up to his ear and
pretended to talk.

"I guess I thought people might wonder why
you're sitting out there in your car; it might look strange," said Mr.
Konchar, 33. "It's one of those things where after the situation
happens you're wondering, 'Why did I do that?' "

Many women rely
on fake cell phone calls when they fear for their physical safety.
Yessenia Morales, 21, said she recently called a non-existent friend
while being followed by a group of men on a train platform.

"I'll see you in a few minutes," she promised the ether.

fake calls are often made by people trying to preserve a more
psychological remove. Mike Lupiani uses his impersonation of someone on
the phone to ignore his chatty next-door neighbors. "They ask how your
day is going and stuff," said Mr. Lupiani, of Rochester. "I don't
really have time for it."

Christina Rohall, 29, said she
pretends to use the phone to avoid getting hit on. "I feel awkward just
rejecting people," said Ms. Rohall, of San Francisco.

How well
the fake call works is one of its most appealing qualities , and a
testament to how much respect people automatically grant to a cellphone
force field. Bartosz Sitarski, 24, said he once pretended to be on a
cellphone call for a full 15 minutes when someone he didn't want to
speak to was waiting to talk to him at a Milwaukee coffee shop. The
other person finally left rather than interrupt the "call."

security guards seem to respect the cellphone buffer, said Michael
McEachern, 16, of San Diego, who has found the fake call a useful way
to get to the club level at a Padres game when he doesn't have a pass.
Some frequent fakers worry that the wireless charade will be harder to
pull off once more people begin to suspect it.

But that will not
deter Adam Hecht, a radiologist in Berkeley Heights, N.J., whose wife
said she is often mortified by his cellphone humor. Mr. Hecht, 40,
reserves his fake phoning for places with no reception, like the
Tiffany's at the Short Hills, N.J., mall, where cellphones have
apparently been rendered unusable to preserve the ambiance: "I usually
go through a long medical scenario," he said, "that doesn't exist."
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