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Washington - At the beginning of the 1996 movie The Rock, Nicolas Cage's character takes a well-deserved break from his adventures as an FBI agent to share an intimate moment with his girlfriend - but then his cordless phone starts to ring.

"Just don't answer - it's OK," she says.

"It's the office, baby, I have to."

In movies and TV, it's a rule: When the phone rings while two people are in a romantic embrace, someone will pick up. Natasha Lyonne's character does it in the last episode of the recent Netflix series Russian Doll

Don Cheadle's does it in 2004's Crash. Famously, Laura Linney's character does it in 2003's Love, Actually when she finally brings home her office crush, then gets a call from her institutionalized brother, which for some reason dooms that budding relationship. It happens in Seinfeld. It happens in Sex and the City. It happens in Netflix's You.

There are thousands of similar entertainment tropes, and many are eye-roll-worthy cliches, but this one has always felt particularly egregious. Can't the phone wait? 

I'm angry at the characters not just for leaving passion on the table, but for not acting like real people. Entertainment insists such a phone call plays out one way, when in reality I imagine most of them just go to voice mail. Or do they?

When I mentioned this frustration to Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru who wrote the guidebook Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he pointed out that we don't really want our fiction to exactly mimic reality. 

These scenes can be potent contrasts, showing that ecstasy can be dashed by the trivial or the tragic at any moment, that our highs can quickly become lows or middles. 

Marty Klein, a sex therapist in Palo Alto, California, says that about half of his patients have been interrupted or distracted during sexual activity by devices of some kind - and half of those instances haven't resumed because of a broken mood or other reason.

"If you're a cardiac surgeon or the secretary of State, you get to answer your phone in the middle of sex," he says. "Other than that, I don't get it."

Part of the problem, he says, is that most people are anxious during sexual situations. "Turning your attention away from what you're anxious about to something that's familiar is very comforting."

The Washington Post