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Wireless headsets create etiquette problems

The Wall Street Journal

Natacha Vilson was catching up with an old friend she had bumped into on a New York street recently when, without even saying “excuse me,” the friend seemed to be talking into space. Because he was using a tiny wireless headset perched on one ear that was barely visible, she didn’t realize at first that he had taken a call on his cellphone and was no longer talking to her.

Vilson, a college student, was put off and finally said: “I’m talking to you, will you please take that off?”

Such mix-ups are happening increasingly as the small, robotic-looking phone headsets that perch in the wearer’s ear become the latest high-tech accessory of choice.

Using a technology called Bluetooth, the devices generally are 3 or 4 inches long, weigh less than an ounce, and don’t need to be physically plugged into a cellphone, freeing users from dangling cords and making it easy to keep the little pod clipped onto one ear constantly, even at home. They can connect with a phone that is as far away as 30 feet, though most users still keep their phones in a pocket, purse or belt clip.

“It is like my third earlobe,” says Raj Mohammed, a technology project manager at a New York mutual-fund company.

While many users find them convenient and fun, the new headsets can create peculiar social situations. As was the case with Vilson and her friend, bystanders are often unaware that a user is wearing one. Indeed, users of Bluetooth headsets often appear to be talking to themselves.

Another pitfall: “Half the time people think you’re talking to them when you’re really not,” says William Robbins, a doctor in Orlando, Fla. He was in a supermarket recently enjoying a bit of risque banter with an ex-girlfriend over his headset when the woman next to him thought he was talking to her.

Although exact sales figures are not available, wireless-equipment makers and phone operators alike say that sales of the headsets have increased sharply in the past year, fueled by new technology that makes them easier to use and a jump in the number of moderately priced phones equipped to work with them.

For example, roughly a quarter of all phones sold in the U.S. will be Bluetooth-ready by next year, up from just 3 percent last year, according to Yankee Group, a Boston-based consulting firm. Analysts expect sales of Bluetooth headsets will continue to grow in the next few years.

But wireless headsets can make for etiquette problems. When Reginald Davis, a pharmaceutical-sales manager in Washington, bought a wireless headset in November, his wife, Shan, thought it looked cool — until he started wearing it constantly, even at family gatherings, where Shan Davis’s sister-in-law would ask her: “How can you stand it?”

For months, Davis says he had assumed his wife could tell from the lights on the earpiece whether he was on the phone, but his wife hadn’t noticed them. Unable to predict whether he would ignore her or respond, she got in the habit of forging ahead with whatever she needed to say. “I just keep going,” she says. “I know he can hear me. He just doesn’t answer me.”

Like them or hate them, wireless headsets seem here to stay — until new technological advancements render them passe. Even Vilson, the college student put off by her friend’s headset chat, recently bought Motorola’s trendy RAZR phone and a Bluetooth headset. “I have to be up to date with the trend,” says Vilson, who adds that her friends wouldn’t be seen outside their dorm rooms with an outdated phone.

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