When You’re In Public, Shut Up!

Updated October 25, 2013 with new example

Little infuriates me more than a loud cell phone talker in a public space.

If I’m trapped in a packed train, a crowded airport terminal or a fancy restaurant, the last thing I want to hear is the minutiae of the person seated next to me, delivered at booming volume.

According to today’s New York Times, I’m far from alone. But speaking loudly on a cell phone can do more than just annoy your seatmates – it can hurt your business. According to the Times:

“In 2009, Robert B. Robbins, a partner in the Washington office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, unwittingly broadcast his law firm’s intention to lay off several associates to fellow Amtrak passengers. In a cellphone call, the lawyer named co-workers facing unemployment. The indiscretion mortified a law student on the train, who alerted the blog Above the Law.

News of the gaffe prompted Mr. Robbins’s law firm to publicly apologize “for the unfortunate manner in which our deliberations about reductions have become public.” Mr. Robbins kept his job but got a new nickname: Acela Bob.”

It’s not just cell phones, either. If you’re working on a sensitive project on your laptop in public, people are likely to snoop. Again, from the Times:

“Shoulder surfing, or surreptitiously reading a stranger’s documents or laptop, is widespread. In a 2007 survey of 400 business people commissioned by 3M United Kingdom, 80 percent shoulder-surfed. Still, when they were the subjects of such unwanted attention, more than half of respondents said they had just ignored it.”

I wrote about this problem almost two years ago, in an article titled, “Why You Should Be Paranoid in Public.” (In that post, I included details about my own embarrassing moment.) At that time, I wrote:

“I’m constantly amazed by what I observe in public – lawyers on packed Amtrak cars discussing sensitive cases loudly on their cell phones, businessmen working on documents marked “confidential” in plain sight on airplanes, and politicos hashing out controversial strategy over lunch within earshot of fellow diners.

Those people have no idea who I am. I could be their opposing counsel, or their direct business competitor, or a political reporter. And if I can use the information I learn against them, I will.”


It happened again yesterday. An activist named Tom Matzzie was on the Acela train when he overheard a nearby (and loud) passenger giving “off the record” interviews on his cell phone. It turns out the man was former NSA chief and CIA director Michael Hayden. So Matzzie started live-tweeting the conversation.

Mr. Hayden quickly learned (via a phone call) that he was the latest victim of “vigilante tweeting,” and introduced himself to Mr. Matzzie. Matzzie reports that Hayden was a perfect gentleman about it.

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