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I Wish I’d Said That

Stealing is, of course, wrong. I abjure it. But sometimes a piece of language is just too good not to be … well, we won’t say plagiarized, let’s say recycled. (“I wish I’d said that,” said Oscar Wilde once, admiring a witticism of James McNeill Whistler’s, and Whistler replied: “You will, Oscar, you will!” And I bet he did, too.)

I recently heard the University of Manchester computer scientist Ian Pratt-Hartmann handle a cellphone lecture interruption with the coolest line. I knew immediately I would thieve it. I’ll share it with you, but don’t tell anyone else (this is a brand new blog; it probably has about 12 readers including the editor and you; keep it under your hat).

We were in a seminar room at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria. Ian was presenting a technical paper about the computational complexity of logical reasoning in ordinary English, to an audience of 30 or so. I found it riveting, but one needed to concentrate. The sudden Latin-American music of the ring tone that disrupted the talk seemed impossibly loud in the intimate surroundings and tight acoustics. I thought someone was going to suggest starting a conga line.

As the embarrassed owner fished around in her bag for the offending noise source (“mobile phone,” as they say in Europe), and fumbled around trying to make it stop, it got louder. Ian watched stone-faced, and waited until the samba subsided. When everything was silent, he said very seriously in a kind of official-announcement voice, to the audience at large, “Please remember to switch your mobile phones back on again after the lecture.”

Exactly what I’d been looking for. A touch of velvet humor, but wrapped around an ice-cold shaft of disapproval. (Incidentally, it made me realize something. I quietly slipped my Nokia out of my jacket pocket and turned it off. None of us are perfect.)

I hate cellphone interruptions more than almost any lecture-interrupting event not involving gunplay. Our students seem not to realize (though our colleagues surely should) that explaining complex material to an assembly of strangers within a time limit is stressful. It’s harder than those who have never done it would think. Trying to get back on track after being blindsided by a disturbance can cost you as much as a minute—perhaps 3 to 5 percent of the time you have for a conference paper (and 2 percent even in a 50-minute class).

If you’re a little too frank (“What the hell is wrong with you morons—your phones are so smart yet you’re all so dumb”) you risk losing audience goodwill. Yet you don’t want to just tolerate it (“Umm … let’s see now, where was I?”). I remember seeing Stephen Jay Gould at Stanford pleading with his audience to stop popping flashbulbs in his face (they had been sternly warned not to). It seemed weak. Step down from the podium and smash his camera, I thought.

Whether the YouTube videos of teachers smashing cellphones in class are all genuine is something I haven’t decided. Notice that in two of the videos assembled on this page the student actually takes the call, which seems almost too brazen to be believed, especially in the front row. Some of the incidents may be staged. And I don’t want to find out the hard way that smashing someone’s cellphone during a lecture constitutes criminal damage and can get you arrested. I just want to focus a little embarrassing attention on the miscreant without completely losing the rest of the audience. Ian’s remark has just the right edge of polite disdain.

And its rhetorical inversion reminded me of an old story about a baby waking up and crying in the audience at a small-town theater matinee. An experienced actor, deciding that the situation had to be addressed even at the cost of breaching the fourth wall, approached the footlights, and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, unless the play is stopped, the child cannot possibly go on.” I’d steal that line too if I was a stage actor.

I haven’t deployed either of these tempting pieces of purloinable language myself yet. But I will, Oscar, I will.

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