Megaphone Call – Frank McNally on a curse of public spaces

‘Like most journalists, and humans in general, I enjoy a good eavesdrop on occasion’

There was an awkward moment in a local cafe recently when I chose a table, put my coffee and newspaper on it, draped my jacket over the chair, and was about to sit down. Then a Chinese man sat at the table next to me, whereupon I had a sudden desire to move.

No, it was nothing to do with coronavirus. The urge to socially distance myself from the man was for another reason I’ll explain in a moment. But because he was Chinese, I became acutely conscious that immediate relocation might look like the result of racial profiling.

So, still determined to move, I had to drag it out a bit, appearing relaxed but puzzled as if having second thoughts about the positioning of the table, the quality of the light, perhaps even the feng shui of the surroundings.

Only then did I take myself, slowly, to the most remote corner available.


The problem, I knew from previous experience, was that this man invariably uses his coffee break to make phone-calls.

Loud phone-calls. Long ones too, frequently outlasting the period I had hope to spend reading, or thinking, both of which become impossible when he starts up.

I never hear the other half of his conversations, of course – although, if we’re using fractions, “half” would be an overstatement. He tends to supply about nine-tenths of the dialogue.

Whoever he’s speaking to must be almost as captive an audience as the rest of us.

He doesn’t just sit and talk, either. Sometimes, to better express himself, he has to stand up, or walk around a bit.

He also uses hand gestures a lot, as if it’s a video call.

I do this myself on the phone sometimes, God knows, but not usually in public spaces.

Whereas he often seems to be giving directions to somebody while, typically, pointing out the window at a tree.

Naturally, I have tried the usual Irish form of community policing with the phone man – giving him dirty looks. It doesn't work

If I had any idea what he was saying, it might at least have entertainment value.

Unfortunately, Mandarin Chinese is not one of my strong points. The little I know about it is that its vocabulary has fewer syllables than English, but more tones, which can change a sound’s meaning completely.

A classic example, apparently, is the word “ma”.

Depending on tone, this can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, or “insult”, which is the sort of diplomatic minefield that would make you think twice about even trying to learn the language.

But for the uninitiated, the language’s many short, staccato sounds also add to the mental health risks of passive exposure for long periods.

Like most journalists, and humans in general, I enjoy a good eavesdrop on occasion. Even when you can understand what’s being said, however, there is a (usually) reliable rule about the most interesting conversations.

Namely: they shouldn’t be so loud that you can’t avoiding listening.

You should have to work at it a little.

There are exceptions. Years ago, in a previously quiet coffee-shop, I and other customers had our ears taken hostage one day by a woman who entered already talking loudly into her phone about an accident that had just forced her to visit an emergency department.

This was certainly interesting. As we learned (without a choice), the accident had involved losing the top of her finger in a car-door.

Which, terrible as it sounded, had the upside of giving her exciting news to share.

She was clearly enjoying it, because she rang at least two friends with the details (“You’ll never guess what happened!”) before I was forced to leave.

If I’d stayed any longer, I would have had to look at her finger. And there was no way I was giving her that satisfaction. She had flouted the eavesdroppers’ convention by making her need for an audience too obvious.

Getting back to our Chinese friend, maybe it's not rude to have loud phone conversations in cafes where he's from. It is bad form in Japan, I know. You risk social death in Tokyo if you make a phone-call in a cafe or on the Metro. For lesser crimes, like not having your ringtone on silent, you might get off with a suspended sentence.

Naturally, I have tried the usual Irish form of community policing with the phone man – giving him dirty looks. It doesn’t work. I have also tried staring at him, which is useless too. Indeed, I probably overestimated the risk of causing him offence the other day.

When he’s on the phone at least, which is most of the time, he seems to have complete immunity to eye contact.