Missing Manners

Ignore the phone, not your friends

In the Marx Brothers’ comical films there is a running gag involving the telephone. Whenever a phone rings the three brothers instantly make a desperate dive to reach for and answer it. This was (and still is) a criticism of the disruptive nature of the telephone, showing the silliness of a Pavlovian response to a ringing bell. But today the joke is on us as millions have developed the same conditioned response to smartphone ringtones and alerts. The need to check for messages, tweets, and emails has become compulsive.

The ubiquitous ring tones of others assault our ears daily, rings followed by the annoying chatter of the phone’s user, who often shows little discretion in choice of topic and speaking volume. The problem is everywhere: on commuter trains, in restaurants, in college lecture halls, in theaters, and even in churches. Public places are trying to put a stop to it: restaurants are banning smartphones, concert halls use a simulated ring to alert attendees to silence their phones, commuter trains have resorted to designating cellphone prohibited “quiet cars.” College professors simply complain about texting during class. But it isn’t just about the disruption of others, the National Safety Council reports that 52 percent of traffic incidents involved cellphones in 2011. 

Who would ever have dreamed up this scenario - humans as members of a hive society, mandatorily connected at all times? On the bright side, we are now walking encyclopedias and network hubs if we choose, and most of us do. On the dark side, the lure of the virtual world, whether it’s games or celebrity tweets, is seemingly turning us into real world automatons.

If the heedless, rude and distracted masses were not a big enough concern, some major social media corporations are encouraging this sort of bad behavior. A 2013 TV ad for Facebook’s mobile service, Facebook Home, showed a young woman escaping from a boring family dinner by gazing at new photos of her Facebook friends. It seems that civility is under assault from all sides.  So how will society cope? I believe there are three possible scenarios:

  1.  Further deterioration of manners as digital distractions prevail over good behavior. Those who value their texting and Facebook sessions above face time with people, will increasingly damage the quality of their personal encounters.  They will ignore suggested norms of Internet connectivity etiquette (connectiquette?), and this behavior will become normalized.

  2. Etiquette adaptation to disruptive technology and voluntary observance of new norms. Good manners are often perceived as a status indicator, and if restrained use of communication devices gains acceptance among elites, it is possible that an evolved etiquette will prevail against the onslaught of digital disruption. This will require support from entertainment media and other tastemakers.

  3. Harsh intervention resulting from the failure of voluntary observance of behavioral norms and the tardy development of appropriate etiquette. This would be the most Orwellian response. A society desperate to arrest the disruptive effects of constant interruption from portable electronic devices can resort to bans and signal blockage. Schools, churches, theaters, and auditoriums could deploy powerful signal jammers to prevent portable devices from receiving signals on their premises. Strict bans of smartphones and wearable-computing devices could be enforced in restaurants and at dinner tables in private homes.

In my opinion the third scenario is the one we are most likely to see, because most consumers are so deeply in love with personal information technology that they will remain blind to its negative behavioral consequences. Corporations keen on selling these distractions will reinforce this myopic attitude. Technology vendors will pick up where alcohol salesmen leave off: they will issue occasional public service messages discouraging the irresponsible use of their products while doing everything possible to maximize sales and profits. “Text Responsibly,” will be part of the lingo.

Disruptive communication device usage is undermining the civility of human interactions and robbing us of our dignity as individuals in control of our priorities. The act of perusing a smartphone while meeting with someone is intrinsically dismissive of others. It’s the behavioral equivalent of saying, “You don’t deserve my full attention, and I’ll ignore you as soon as something more interesting comes along.” It also shows a lack of self-control sufficient enough to ignore a stream of mostly trivial information. Beyond the unappealing social aspects, I believe that there is a deeper harm we are inflicting on ourselves. We are buying and using devices that may actually be damaging our mental health.

Studies have shown that test subjects who are frequently interrupted during tasks experience greater stress levels and must devote considerable time to re-orienting themselves to the interrupted work.  Since concentration and attention span suffer in individuals who are regularly distracted, we are inducing a kind of artificial A.D.D. when we constantly interrupt our work with voluntary or reflexive information distractions.

The reason an autistic person has difficulty in conversation is the inability to establish a normal rhythm of speech and response, because of missed cues. Someone whose attention is darting back and forth between a person and a small screen is, in a sense, virtually autistic, because of impaired ability to maintain conversational engagement. In short, unrestrained use of our treasured smartphones and tablets engenders behaviors symptomatic of mental illness. This alone should give us pause.

To the degree that older adults retain any influence over their young relations, we should try to inculcate some simple rules of smartphone usage. There should be no device-initiated interruption of family gatherings, except for a serious emergency, and private conversations should take precedence over electronic interruptions. The true value of “conservatism” is to preserve things of great value. The civility of human discourse is such a thing, and we need to defend it against a deluge of disruptive communication that is the information equivalent of junk food – fun to consume, but injurious to our health.