Technology vs Courtesy

The other day at my local Target, I was just stepping up to my turn at the checkout when I got a call from agency (interpreting). Considering that any communication with my agency could lead to money, I consider it too important to just ignore. At the same time I was about to engage in another (money related) activity. So I did the only thing I could think of to keep everything right – I answered with a quick “Can I call you back in a couple of seconds?” waited for the assent and hung up. Turning to the clerk I was shocked by her response:


“Thank you so much. Most people don’t notice that I’m human.”


Really? Well yes, I have to admit that I wasn’t so surprised by the rudeness she had encountered from others. I’ve seen it. People too busy talking to whoever that they don’t even notice that they are in the bathroom until you flush. I’ve seen the ones who are having such a good conversation that they forgot that they are driving. So it’s not a stretch to think that someone, well a lot of people, would forget that the person ringing up their purchases is … well … a person.


That got me thinking. There was a time, not so long ago when that situation simply couldn’t have existed. When I was a kid a mobile phone was something you saw only in army movies (and it took two soldiers to carry the darned things and an hour to set them up to make a call). Science fiction posited that we would have mobile communications in the form of (the ever so cleverly named) communicators in Star Trek, the original series. They weren’t even meant for personal communications. Communicators were more like walkie-talkies than phones.


Go back just a little further and the idea of calling someone meant actually walking over to their house, ringing the door bell, and asking if they were available. If they weren’t home, you left a calling card to let them know you called while they were out, possibly trying to call on you. And you thought telephone tag was fun.


The idea that someone would ignore the people in front of them to talk to someone who wasn’t there was absurd. Doing such a thing could get you locked up in a mental institution (and really you wouldn’t want to go there in that time). The fact is, one didn’t have to think of the courtesy of the matter, it simply wasn’t possible without being out of your mind. Enter technology. With the advent of the phone, it became possible to talk to someone a long way off. With the technology came the need for new rules of etiquette.


Keeping in mind that the fundamental rules of etiquette are simply the way we keep from offending each other. The old rules said that you had to respond to anyone who asked for your attention. This makes sense when everyone is in the same room, or at least close by. Seeking someone’s attention took effort, which you just wouldn’t do if it wasn’t important (most of the time – people will always find ways to be rude, we’re going to ignore them for this conversation). With the telephone, seeking someone’s attention became a whole lot easier. Instead of putting on your shoes and coat and tromping halfway across town, you just picked up the receiver and dialed the number. This is a great system for the person seeking attention, not so great for the one just sitting down to dinner with his in-laws who he’s about to ask to loan him some money.


Here you see that the one person is completely unaware of the situation of the other – which wouldn’t be the case with old paradigm. Walking up to someone’s house gives you a little better understanding of what they are doing at the time. On the other hand, the poor guy just sitting down to dinner is in a bind. One rule of etiquette says that he must answer the person on the phone because they are asking for his attention. Another rule says that he must pay attention to the people in his presence. He needs a new rule to cover this technology induced quandary.


And the rules did change. Without the phone it was perfectly acceptable to walk over to someone’s house uninvited and knock on the door. Not so any more. With the telephone, it became the rule that you should call first to see if they were home and accepting visitors. Again, it’s comfortable for all. Now I, the caller, don’t have to worry about missing you on the streets and you don’t have to worry that I’ll come over at the same time as your cousin Carla who hates me with a passion. You can even, if you wish, tell me you’re busy when really all you are doing is reading a good book. Yea, problem solved.


Well only for a little while. The more people with phones, the more they get used. Now, it’s not just friends and family calling, your boss can too. That starts blurring the line between work and home. New rules of etiquette about that, which can be solved with a new technology. The answering machine. How cool is that. If you can’t, or don’t want to, answer the phone let the machine do it. Of course that just gives people permission to call you at all hours – you’ll get the message when you’re ready. Except the phone still rings and wakes you up at 2:00 in the morning.


That’s all fine an well for catching you at home, but you like to go out. How are people supposed to get tell you that Aunt Ethel just died and named you in her will if you are out at the bar throwing darts? I mean, who wouldn’t want to know that they were named in Aunt Ethel’s will as soon as possible? Ooh, we have technology for that. A pager. All I have to do is call the number, type in the number where you should call me and all is good. Except, why didn’t you call me back. I mean, I sent the page a whole 10 minutes ago. Of course you are thinking “I’m out with my friends playing darts, I really don’t care to talk to you right now” and my second and third pages are really starting to annoy you. We need new etiquette rules.


There’s only one problem with that. It’s easier to create and distribute new technology than it is to come up with and convince enough people to use new etiquette rules. So instead of new rules about how and when to use a pager, we just amped it up a bit and created cell phones. Now it doesn’t matter where I am, you can reach me. Naturally that brings up a whole new set of problems based on that wonderfully connectivity. People think that because you can be reached anytime/anywhere, they should. No longer is your vacation really time away from work – it’s just time away from the office. Woe to the poor soul who actually turns his phone off from time to time to read or do other fun things without interruption. The rest of the world thinks it is the hight of rudeness to be out of touch.


Actually, it’s just that etiquette hasn’t caught up with technology. Remember that bit about etiquette being the rules that make everyone comfortable? Yeah, we’ve lost track of that. Teenagers aren’t taught to limit their texting to appropriate times. To them it just seems normal that the friends on the other end of the phone are just as, if not more, important as the friends sitting right in front of them. They don’t think about how hurt they are when they aren’t the center of attention, they just text someone who will pay attention to them. Business books and classes don’t mention anything about giving employees uninterrupted time with their families and friends. The bosses feel they are somehow different when they are interrupted. And so it goes.


Eventually, we’ll figure out the rules about when and where to turn it off. Of course by then the technology will have moved on. We’ll have some new level of intrusion that we just don’t know what to do about it. Maybe it will be cybernetic implants and the awkwardness of having your boss show up in your head during “happy naked fun time”. You know what, it’s going to happen, sooner or later. I just hope I’m not the one writing about it when it does.


Or maybe I will. New technology and the etiquette that has or hasn’t evolved around it would make for a great tension amplifier in a future plot.

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