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Walking outside the sports arena of Hofors, I suddenly hear an unexpected sound. Someone seems to be crying loudly. I look around and see a teenage girl walking towards the arena, talking in her mobile phone and sobbing. Her face is almost hidden inside the hood of her jacket. She passes me, continuing to cry and talk in her phone. A man approaches her, saying something like: Can I help you someway? (A teacher from the nearby school, I figure out.) But she just ignores him and continues to walk; now disappearing into the building. I am baffled. What was that all about?

There are many questions raised here that never will be answered. Nevertheless, there is a lot to say about this incident. First of all, the young girl is crying in public. My guess is that it is the mobile that allows her to do that. Obviously, her mobile phone helps her to take part in an intimate relation via the phone. Not only can she establish a conversation, she also feels free to be emotional because she is in touch with someone that she knows well. She also demonstrates that the conversation represents an intimate space that others should stay out of. The teacher tries to behave as a responsible adult, but does not seem to understand that he should not interfere: Someone is already comforting her.

The girl behaves as if she was in her own room, protected by walls. But they are not real walls, they are “phantom walls”. German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr analyses privacy in “primitive” communities – in his example an Amerindian tribe living in a big communal house – as a social agreement that “prevents” intimate intercourse to be perceived by those not involved. So, following Duerr, the transgression involved here is not simply crying in public but also observing someone crying in public.

The ubiquitous presence of mobile telephones in public space is propelling changes in public behaviour. Some of us – the middle-aged – are provoked by the way young mobile users behave in public environments. What we need to understand is that the new rules of public conduct now developing probably will be quite different from the ones we were brought up to observe. And perhaps it is we that have to learn to abstain from being voyeurs, from observing interactions occurring behind phantom walls.

Reference

Duerr, H P (1994): Nakenhet och skam. Myten om civilisationsprocessen. Stockholm/Stehag: Brutus Östlings bokförlag Symposium. (Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß. Band 1: Nacktheit und Scham. Suhrkamp 1988).

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