The price of technology - manners anyone?

alison gordon's picture

Some choose not to buy into the debate on whether innovations in technology have improved our lives or not - but it is obvious to most that mobile phones, email, blackberries and the like have on the whole made us a ruder, socially awkward group of individuals.

It is well known that the old fashioned way of connecting with people - in person, via the post or perhaps even by the trusty landline or payphone is just that - old fashioned. Most people now use informal, evasive communication methods to stay in touch with people - text messaging and email, though a far less personal way, is now just too convenient.

Through my daily travels on public transport, I have found great evidence that this convenience has come at a huge price for some people. Being so accessible via mobile phone has somehow led to a major loss of general respect for others in a public space.

A gentleman, if you can call him that, on my train to work was receiving a phone call from someone who he obviously didn't want to speak to. Common sense and manners would tell you to either put the phone in silent mode or at the very least answer the call, then hang up quickly - but no, he let the phone ring out in a very annoying, loud ring tone. He clearly had no concept of respecting his fellow commuters, as he barely noticed the angry glares and whispers from those around him.

The same lack of social skills applies to people who choose to air their grievances via text message or email - it has become far too easy for one to tell another what they think of them without confronting them face-to-face. In all honesty, some don't feel comfortable with the idea of speaking to someone as all their social experience has been through a computer.

There is mobile phone and email etiquette - emoticons to represent your feelings rather than actually describing them - so perhaps someone needs to develop technology etiquette? Some guidelines and rules that remind people that despite these great inventions and all the good things they offer us, basic social skills still apply? Or should people already know this?


technology etiquette

There's an iron law that suggests the more sophisticated the technology of commnication the more banal and trivial the information transmitted over it. Mobile phones are a stunning invention, it's amazing that anyone can phone anyone else from anywhere in the world these days with a device smaller than a playing card, but I've yet to hear anyone say anything more interesting than 'I'm on the train...I said I'm on the train!'. Technology moves so fast it's little wonder that manners take more time to evolve to catch up and there's a lot of hypocracy involved here. It's interesting how everyone complains about how rude everyone else is with their mobile phone, and yet everyone still has one and, when they use it, are as rude as anyone else. It's rather like the concerned middle class mothers who campaign against mobile phone masts being built in their neighbourhood who then rush out of the protest meeting to phone their friends on their cell phones to tell them how well it went and then complain about the lousy connection. Everyone condemns people who talk on their mobiles while driving and yet, from observation, everyone still seems to do it. Hell is other people.

Etiquette certainly changes over time, a hundred years ago it was socially accepted to spit in the street and pubs had spittoons, something far more unpleasant than idiots shouting into their mobile phones in libraries. Humans have an inbuilt ability to step over bodies in the street. I think that mobiles, like cars or personal music players, give people the illusion that they're in private when they're still in public, it creates this bubble around them and they think they're invisible when they act in such an anti-social manner. A few years anyone talking to themselves as they walked down the street would have been thought insane, now they're all go getters on their blackberries.

I'm not sure that technology really does degrade manners in general, perhaps it merely allows people's basic nature to be expressed in new ways. Once we just ignored people and read the paper, now we just ignore strangers to talk with our friends, is that more or less anti social? With the vast numbers of people, all strangers to each other, jostling for position on public transport every day, it's remarkable how well we get along on average. In the end, if you're really annoyed about mobiles there is a technological solution. You can buy a signals blocker, similar to those used in some restaurants and museums, for a hundred dollars in the states. Carry that around in your bag and enjoy the puzzled expressions and irritated bangings as the chatting girls and city boys find their teat run dry.

People are ruder on e mail than they would be face to face because there are none of the non verbal social cues to moderate our behaviour online, similarly it's much easier to fire off an e mail in ten seconds than take ten minutes to write and post a letter. On the other hand our society is now so politically correct that the least bit of flirting or strong language can be grounds for dismissal so fear of transgressing the endlessly shifting boundaries of political correctness, rather than inherent unsociabiliy, hamstrings our work place relations. It's all swings and roundabouts, we have traded permanence for immediacy, we can now contact our loved ones at a moment's notice but never again will a stack of yellowing love letters, lovingly preserved with a red ribbon around them, bring tears to a grandmother's eye.

There's a great youtube clip in which a young lecturer is in full flow when a student answers his mobile phone in the first row. The lecturer steps across, still talking, takes the phone out of the guy's hand and stamps it under his foot, never missing a beat. Maybe we need more of that. It strikes me there weren't queues of fifty people outside every public phone box in times past, and if someone is ringing you then it's for their convenience not yours but most people are closer to their mobiles than anybody they actually speak to on them. Mobiles aren't going to go away, they're the most popular new invention since the shoe. In the end people can always escape the rudeness of others on their mobiles by ringing up someone themselves...

Convenience & Boredom

Your comment about convenience is very true - when the landline was the only form of phone communication, you only accessed a payphone in an emergency. I have vivid memories of being a young child stranded on a train platform with my aunty because the train had broken down - the queues for the two payphones were 50 people deep....you just waited your turn, or walked home!

But aside from the convenience factor - I've noticed that people can't relax and are so easily bored with themselves. I treasure the 40 minutes of thinking time I have on the train to and from work, but obviously some people aren't satisfied with their own entertainment - reading the paper, doing a crossword or just sitting there!

Technology plays such a strong role in our lives that simple pleasures don't exist for some anymore.