I don’t have many opportunities to take issue with the current writer of The New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column, because he, unlike his predecessors, really is one, and doesn’t come up with whoppers like they used. Professor Appiah had some “Bonus Advice” this week, however, from a Judge John Hodgman. The judge reminded me of those halcyon days when “The Ethicist” was good for a couple of Ethics Alarms attacks a month. Good times!
First, the question:
My roommate takes long, casual phone calls while on the toilet. I have tried explaining why this behavior is creepy and rude to the person he is talking to, as they do not know they are talking to someone who is going to the bathroom. He thinks it’s actually rude when people don’t answer phone calls simply because they’re in the bathroom.
It is impossible to be secretly rude. It has no effect on the person on the other end of the line if you are naked, making faces, or writing “I hate this idiot!” in the mirror in blood. Nor is it “creepy” to have a phone conversation on the toilet. I’m typing this while I’m on the toilet and wearing a duck on my head, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.
Nor is it rude to refuse to answer phone calls when one is in the bathroom. In fact, it is almost never rude to decline a phone call. That bell is an invitation to have a conversation, not a command. I don’t answer calls when I’m taking a nap, a shower, having a live, face-to-face conversation, writing an Ethics Alarms post, cooking, eating a meal, enjoying an orgy, or chopping up my victim after a murder. It’s my option, my time, and my schedule.
These two roommates are made for each other.
Now the judge’s response:
“Your roommate is quite wrong: What’s actually rude is people making phone calls in the first place. We have so many better ways to communicate now that do not involve repeating yourself constantly, saying the wrong thing under the gun and then realizing you’ve been talking for five minutes to a dropped call. Even the ringing of a good old landline is the intrusive announcement that either a) someone thinks you don’t deserve to choose how to spend your time, or b) someone you know has been killed or injured. If only to protect the meditative solitude of the bathroom act, your roommate should stop this habit, never mind the fact that it is just plain gross.”
Think about it: someone with this level of judgment is a judge.
1. We have better ways of communicating than talking to each other?
2. If someone doesn’t want to talk on the phone, they can turn the phone off. They can have an unlisted number, or a cell phone number they only share with people they won’t think are rude when they call. They can not have a phone at all. If you make it possible for people to call you when you don’t have to do so, people reasonably assume that you don’t mind being called. Calling too late or too early is inconsiderate, unless there is an emergency. Robocalls and solicitor calls are intrusions. But a friend or relative “reaching out to touch someone” as the old Bell long-distance ad sang? That’s rude? What’s the matter with this guy?
3. Let me rephrase that: What the HELL is the matter with this guy? We have to obey his rules for what we do in the bathroom? I read my baseball books in the bathroom…is that a violation of “meditative solitude’? How about having long discussions with my wife through the bathroom door—not sufficiently meditative? What’s happening on the toilet isn’t gross, but talking to someone who has no idea where you are and what you are doing is gross? I can be as gross as we want when the only witness is me, and there is absolutely nothing rude, inappropriate or unethical about it.
As long as I clean up afterward.