The Unique Terror of Hearing Your Phone Alarm As Someone Else’s Ringtone

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Photo: Daniel Grill/Corbis

At 10:30 AM EST, Cut editor Molly Fischer was away from her desk when her iPhone began to chime. "WHOSE FUCKING BELL TOWER RINGTONE IS THAT?" I screamed silently into our staff chat room. "It's my alarm so I sort of want to kill myself right now," said my co-worker Kurt.

Hearing the alarm you use to wake up in the morning coming out of someone else's phone at another time of day is among the banal terrors of modern life. Being forced to revisit the daily trauma of waking up can trigger confused panic, uncontrollable rage, adrenaline rushes, and arm spasms as muscle memory compels you to reach for a nonexistent nightstand. Phone Alarm Stress Disorder (PASD) is relatively inconsequential, but it is real, and it is really annoying.

Like your name or the cry of a child, you will recognize your wake-up alarm through any din. Every morning it wrenches you from an unconscious state and into a conscious one, so sounds associated with the daily trauma of waking up are imprinted on both minds. Since there are only so many types of phones — and thus only so many preprogrammed ring tones — if you use your phone as an alarm clock, you will likely encounter it in public at some point.

PASD exists for other alarms, too. "I felt my back and neck tense," said one co-worker when I set off the Alarm ringtone in the office. "That's the alert I get when my parents call. The minute I hear that, my heart starts racing and I will automatically pick up my phone even when I know it's not coming from my phone."

"But if you use Alarm for your parent ringtone, when it goes off you traumatize people who use Alarm as an Alarm!" I replied. "They have a waking-up reaction when you have a oh-shit-parents reaction." At the heart of PASD is the mutability of personal electronics, which we customize by rearranging presets that everyone else arranges in a slightly different way.

Polite cell-phone users recognize that tones commonly used as alarms should not be used as ring tones. For this reason, the following iPhone ringtones are unacceptable: Alarm, Bell Tower, Trill, Time Passing. (Unacceptable because they're annoying: Bark, Sonar, Duck, Old Car Horn.) Personally, I think all cell phones should be no louder than "vibrate" at all times, but I recognize that some people are important enough to require sonic intervention when they are needed. Heart surgeons and the parents of terminally ill children, for instance.

"I just hit snooze on Molly's phone and now I'm wishing I was in bed," Kurt said moments before Molly returned. "OH FUCK DID MY PHONE GO OFF AAAH I'M SORRY," she said, followed by a series of profuse apologies. For as irritating as daytime alarm deployment is to endure, causing it can trigger feelings of shame and embarrassment. When the alarm in question is your own alarm, deployed accidentally, that, too, can be jarring. "In a weird way, I feel relieved not to have been here," Molly noted. "It would have been annoying."