Last month I was in Wisconsin and had an interesting conversation with a graduate student about the weighty topic of technology and dehumanization. We were sitting on opposite sides of a table. After about five minutes, I dropped the name of movie director Stanley Kubrick (DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, etc.). I noticed his head also dropped. This happened several times later. “Is my conversation that boring?” I thought, believing he was having trouble staying awake. It turned out he wasn’t dozing: he was punching information into his smartphone, which I didn’t see because it was on his lap and hidden by the table.
He was a nice guy, and I give him credit for wanting to learn about Stanley Kubrick from Wikipedia. But it was a little annoying having to talk to him without eye contact. Similar things have happened other times with other people.
It wasn’t long ago we didn’t even have smartphones. Even mobile telephones have only been around a couple decades. Nowadays, though, we often look like an army of secret agent Maxwell Smarts with miniature shoephones up to our ears.
I know I’m getting gray at the temples and cling to the past. I’m also aware that we live in an age of instant communication, and I haven’t totally embraced it yet. And I plead guilty to rudeness myself. I once glanced at my cellphone during a meeting at work – I don’t always agree with my boss, but he was right when he admonished me to “Keep it in your pants.” (Sorry about that, Chief).
But although digital technology has enormous societal benefits, like so many other things it’s also an excuse for silliness and sloth. There’s a difference between using your phone to broadcast to the world a violent street scene, and texting “LOL” and “OMG” during a social occasion. Advertisers like to push the idea of cells and smartphones as fashion accessories, but good manners are always fashionable.
I remember being in school when the dining hall monitor posted Amy Vanderbilt’s top ten rules of etiquette. We made jokes about it because we thought he was acting like an old lady. But he had a point. Rules of dining etiquette may not mean much when you’re a self-obsessed teenage slob, like I was, but they become important when you have to socialize later in life. It’s not so much about adapting or fitting in, but rather respecting yourself and others.
I feel the same way about I-phones, Blackberries, cell phones, I-pads… whatever. Good manners never go out of style, but in the global village, they often seem to be going out the window. You don’t have to answer every call or text immediately, or finish that game of Candy Crush, or check your Facebook page for updates every 20 minutes. Unless it’s an emergency or something very important, keep the toy out of sight until you have some private time.
This blog is just a hobby for me, but there are people who get paid to write what I’ve just written. I checked out a few of their articles. I’m not sure these paid professionals quite get it, either. The first article I saw discussed “smartphone decency” and advised “Do schedule some offline time with your family.” Really?! Gee, what a novel idea! To actually pull yourself away from your gadget and spend time with your loved ones!
Another writer discussed smartphone etiquette and dating. She advised not using it on a first date. I guess the inference was that, on subsequent dates, it’s ok to LOL and OMG and ignore your partner.
Like I said, these folks get paid for their writing, so maybe they know more than me. I wonder if they know who Stanley Kubrick is.