What our cellphone habits say about our cultures

The Economist surveys the world of cell phone usage, and talks about how culture and society influences our phone habits.

In Japan, a commute culture that (heavily) frowns upon talking in public led to the speedy adoption of SMS and data services. Actual mobile usage declined from 181 minutes a month in 2002, to 133 minutes a month in 2009. That’s a 41% decline in under 7 years.

Some studies suggest that talking on a mobile phone on a train is seen as worse than in a theatre. Instead, hushed passengers type away on their handsets or read mobile-phone novels (written Japanese allows more information to be displayed on a small screen than languages that use the Roman alphabet).

The relatively thrifty Germans, on the other hand, having been long persuaded by its carriers to “keep it short” due to decades of underinvestment in the East taxing networks in the West, spend a shockingly brief 89 minutes a month on their phones.

Americans and Puerto Ricans on the other hand, responding predictably to cheap rates and the all-you-can-talk buffet options, cannot seem to shut their traps, spend 788 and 1,875 minutes a month respectively on their cells.

Comparing chatting habits of various inhabitants in capital cities around Europe, Londoners gather in public entrances and various other “improvised open-air wireless phone booth” because blocking people on the street while on the phone is considered uncouth. Parisians and Madrileniens “stroll”, in comparison, and feel freer to talk in the street.  The Spanish, in particular, almost never let a call go to voicemail.

Other cultural nuggets: Chinese let themselves be interrupted by phone so as not to miss business opportunities; Uzbeks don’t use it in public for fear of police tracking; Germans are aggressive in enforcing phone use rules in public; Indian women protect their handsets with colourful pouches to ensure resale values, whereas Japanese women do the same to add personalities to their handsets; Japanese, Middle Eastern and Latin American business people often have several phones, to signify their importance, to separate work from private life, some even to brownnose their bosses.

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