Based in Atlanta, Nick walker is a meteorologist, voice- over professional and writer. 

These are his stories, memories and opinions. 

We Shouldn't Put a Ring On It

We Shouldn't Put a Ring On It

Are we losing the battle against unmuted cell phones?

I sat with my head bowed in church recently as the pastor beseeched God’s blessing in a quiet but passionate prayer. Suddenly from near the front of the small auditorium came a ringtone blast from a mobile phone of Roger Daltrey and the Who belting out the words “Who are you? Who who who who?” while Pete Townshend’s guitar shredded his signature power chords through the phone’s surprisingly powerful speakers. Worshipers got to hear a full chorus before the phone’s owner was finally able to retrieve the errant instrument from his jacket pocket and subdue it. 

As the pastor continued his prayer, I am sure that the more spiritual congregants in the room immediately drew the obvious theological parallel between the song and Luke 9:20 when Jesus asks Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" As for me, my mind went a different direction, toward the irony of the lyrics in the song's first verse:

“I staggered back to the underground/And the breeze blew back my hair/I remember throwin’ punches around/And preachin’ from my chair.”

I have almost given up hope that we’ll all learn when and where to shut off our cell phones. In the past year I have attended multiple meetings, a few concerts, a wedding and a funeral. At each, there was at least one cell phone that shattered what should have been an emotional, dramatic or otherwise meaningful moment with an out-of-place and clamorous ring tone. And like the example above, many of these were not just simple rings or beeps, but the kinds of ring tones that might have seemed fun and whimsical when the users installed them, but prove to be woefully out of place when breaking the silence of an important assembly.

It makes me wonder why folks who are prone to forgetting to mute their phones use those types of ringtones in the first place. I was in another church service not long ago and heard the little-used but default iPhone ringtone titled “Boing.” It’s the sound you hear in a Road Runner cartoon when Wile E. Coyote falls off the cliff and bounces around like a spring. The congregation endured four or five “boings” before the phone’s owner finally sprang into action and turned it off.  

I worry that the same thing will happen to me someday, and that’s why I use Apple’s "Hillside" ringtone that is built in to my phone. It would still cause a minor disturbance if it rang at the wrong occasion, but at least its monotone wood block sound might avoid an unintentionally wry moment that some blogger could write about later.

I did not witness it, but a friend told me of a wedding he attended where one of the groomsmen’s phones went off while he was standing next to the bride and groom reciting their vows. It was bad enough that the strident ringtone interrupted the ceremony, but what did the groomsman do? He pulled the phone out of his pocket and answered it.

That’s what we’re up against.

As a public speaker I have had my talks disturbed a few times by wayward cell phones. There is a momentary inner struggle when that happens, deciding whether to acknowledge the interruption or just try to press on. Either way, it always throws me. That’s why I am amazed at the cool exterior portrayed by any speaker who continues his or her address as if nothing were amiss, even as the speech is being accompanied by a mobile device playing rock songs from the 70s that some people might be tempted to sing along to. Our pastor usually manages to keep straight-faced when this happens. The only time I saw him distracted was the Sunday he repeatedly exhorted us to “call on God” just before a phone rang. The timing was perfect and he couldn’t resist, suggesting that perhaps God got our message and was returning our call.

None of us is perfect and I confess that I have, on occasion, forgotten to put my phone on silent. I have escaped embarrassment for the most part, but there have been those adrenalin-pumping moments when I’m sitting in a public gathering and all at once realize that my phone is deep in a pocket somewhere with the ring tone set at full volume. That is when I am suddenly certain that in the next nanosecond the phone is sure to make its unmuzzled presence known, so I risk ripping a hole in my pants or jacket to find it, grab it, and turn it off the instant before I imagine it will sound.

My wife had one of those moments at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. Our baby granddaughter was mercifully sleeping peacefully in her arms when my wife abruptly remembered the unsilenced cell phone in her purse. In an effort to speedily retrieve it, she hurriedly handed off the baby to our daughter sitting beside her. Our granddaughter, sensing the sudden change in her comfort level, began wailing at full volume, nearly drowning out the ceremony and causing more disruption than any unstifled cell phone would have.

I wonder if the ultimate answer to this increasingly explosive first-world problem might lie in simply admitting that sooner or later we will all face the humiliation of having our cell phone ring at an inappropriate time. Maybe our only hope is to head the problem off preemptively and come up with a custom “I'm sorry” ring tone. I Googled "apology ringtone," "confession ringtone" and even "mea culpa ringtone," and couldn't find exactly what I was looking for, so I'm guessing it doesn't yet exist. But I think there is a market for a tone designed for those who are habitually forgetful yet repentant. The idea would be to install into the phone a recording of the user’s own voice plaintively pleading, “I’m sorry everyone, I forgot to turn off my phone again; please forgive me!” that would play over and over until the phone was either answered or turned off.

What do you think? Does the idea have possibilities? I'd love to hear any other ideas you might have, so hit "Leave a comment" and share. But remember, if you go for the patent, I thought of it first.

© Nick Walker 2018

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