The introduction of a new communications technology tends to bring with it an inevitable challenge of grappling with new rules of etiquette. This was true in the time of the telegraph when, for example, business owners had to decide whether or not they would receive work-related telegraphs at their homes after business hours. This was true in the early days of the telephone when people eventually decided upon the polite habit of answering the phone with “Hello” instead of “What do you want?” or “Who is it?” What seems natural to us was actually a rule society decided upon only after some conflict and some negotiation.
We are currently in the early years of another communications revolution and just like our forebears, we are negotiating etiquette. We find ourselves in that tricky space where many of us are applying old rules to new media. But we may also be excusing sinful or rude habits by our thoughtless dedication to these new media. In some cases we will look back in a few years and marvel that we could ever have been so rude. By that time society will have caught up and negotiated new etiquette. But for the time being many of us behave like barbarians (albeit barbarians with high-tech devices and Internet connections).
Let me give you just a few examples.
Present, But Absent
Many of our new devices, perhaps our smart phones most prominently, allow us to be present in body but absent in mind. While we may be standing before a friend or sitting beside a spouse, our minds are engaged elsewhere and with other people. I will grant that this disengagement is possible with a book, too (just ask my wife), but society has largely already figured out that we are to favor a person in favor of a book. My iPhone is just so convenient and so small and so alluring that I try to make myself believe that I can keep half my mind on my phone (Angry Birds or email or a text message) even while keeping the other half on a conversation. But we are quickly learning that if I give even a sliver of my mind to that phone, I am giving none of myself to the person trying to speak with me. I am present in body, but my mind is in cyberspace. Be present or be absent! Make your choice and make it clear.
Don’t Keep Me Waiting
Society has not yet fully negotiated the etiquette of call waiting, even though it’s been around for a while now. Personally, I consider it perfectly acceptable to hang up and allow a person to call me back if he feels the need to answer another call while he is speaking with me. Some may disagree. Text messaging is a new and digital equivalent to call waiting. While I am conversing with one person, another seeks to interrupt us. And the question is, is it polite for me to interrupt my conversation to begin another? Too many of us think we can. In fact, most of us cannot tolerate not knowing who has texted us and so, even in the midst of a conversation, we’ll rummage through purse or pocket to steal a glance at the phone to see who has sent us a message. And the moment we begin to engage with that remote person or his message, we have become present but absent (see above). Do not respond to your devices unless it suits you to do so at that moment.
There are some things we do in life that are just plain difficult. They require courage; they cannot be easily avoided or delegated. A constant temptation we face, especially in an age of pervasive mediated communication, is to do in mediated form what ought to be done face to face (or to do by text message what ought to be done by phone). We can probably all think of times that we have chosen to communicate via email or text message what we should have said directly. We do not need to look far to find someone who has broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend through Facebook or through a text message. We gain courage when we do not need to look a person in the eye. But we lose presence, we lose empathy, we lose the holistic nature of face to face, real-world communication. Even the courage we gain may be too much courage, a courage that is really characterless bravado. Be wary of those times that fear or intimidation compel you toward mediation!
Putting On an Exhibition
Many of our new media bring with them the ability to make an exhibition of ourselves. And where they give us the ability, they also seem to give the desire. They may even impose a little bit of pressure to do so. And so we tweet everything we do and upload inappropriate photos to Facebook (or photos that a few years ago would have been inappropriate). What used to be private is now made public, what used to be shameful is now entertaining. Consider whether it needs to be said or needs to be shown.
These are just a few ways in which we would do well to use our minds, to use wisdom, to use common sense, to learn how to stop excusing rudeness, to fast-forward the construction of some kind of etiquette to govern the use of these new media available to us.