Nearly everyone in his right mind complains about cell phones going off in church or the people who shout into their phones in airports or on the plane, but those Jerks are for the most part anonymous strangers whom we shall never see again. Any attempt to correct them might backfire. But what about abuses closer to home?
How many times does this happen in a week. You are having drinks with friends, and in the course of two hours, at least one of them checks his iPhone or Blackberry for messages and email. Or, just as you are trying to recall the title of the flipside of "I Fought the Law and the Law Won," your Jerk friend pulls out his iPhone or laptop and googles the answer.
The next day you are in an office meeting, and while you are trying to focus on the business at hand, half your colleagues are staring into the screens of their laptops. Some may actually be checking a spreadsheet; others are pretending to look something up; but when one of them starts to giggle, you know he is either checking his email or reading the joke-of-the-day.
In bars and restaurants, laptops and iPhones are becoming as intrusive as bigscreen televisions. My wife and I got driven out of a pleasant bistro here in Rockford, by young businessmen doing business on their cellphones and laptops. Though they were lunching together, these guys hardly looked at each other. They had managed to turn a social occasion into total isolation.
It gets worse, far worse. I sometimes find myself in a fashionable bar where attractive young things gather to ingest unspeakable cocktails with fruit flavors and outrageous colors. Naturally, the first thing I notice is how lovely some of the girls are today, how well groomed and fit they are, and how pretty their hair is. Around the corner of the bar are some young men, almost as well-groomed, though--and I hope no one will be offended by my insensitivity--I don't waste much time noting their looks. The girls, when they are not checking their email or working on their laptops, might be chatting with their friends, but the guys? They cannot tear themselves away from their screens. No wonder the birthrate is falling. No wonder pharmaceutical companies are making millions off Cialis. As a man married nearly 40 years, I have gradually learned to accept the discipline I have imposed. I try not to observe pretty girls--or at last not to stare at them--and I never or offer to buy them drinks, but I do not know what is going on with young men today.
Well, then, what is proper etiquette for using a cell phone or checking email in a social setting? There are a few simple rules that anyone can follow. First off, you never disturb other people, whether they are friends or strangers. You can set your phone to vibrate, and when you receive a call quickly leave the room and find some place where no one can hear your conversation. You never initiate a call unless it is an emergency. I really don't care how many millions are riding on the deal you are informing the world of--it's not my money and not my business.
Secondly, you never divert your attention from your friends or dining companions, either by pulling out a newspaper, reading your mail, checking your email, or browsing the web. Technology changes, but good manners--and a good heart--remain the same. I recall a visit I made back to Chapel Hill some five or ten years after I left. I ran into the new chairman, who had been on my dissertation committee. He was kind enough to invite me to lunch but in the middle of the conversation he turned to reading his mail. I politely--if a big grimly--said good bye, seeing that he had work to attend to.
Of course there are exceptions, but they all fall into the same class. The other night, I was having a glass of wine with my wife when I remembered that my son the chef had a very big night in which he was being unveiled as the new executive chef of a restaurant in DC. I texted him the message: "Best of luck on your "Big Night" (an allusion to one of our favorite films). Naturally, i told my wife in advance what I was about to do.
Once or twice a year you may be waiting for very important news. If you are at a party or dining out, you can leave the room for a moment to check your messages or, in extremis, apologize to the company and explain you really are expecting something very important--though even in this case, you are interrupting social intercourse.
In a business meeting, if the participants--particularly the bosses--have agreed to bring laptops to facilitate the work at hand--there is no problem. But computers a bit like tobacco: It is always better to ask permission.
Finally, a bunch of loutish friends and sports fans may actually want to be looking things up while they have drinks. Being rude is one of their club rules. By all means, you should indulge them, though you might think twice before repeating the experience.
All four sets of exceptions really come down to 1) minimizing disruption by leaving the scene or 2) getting permission, if only implicit, for your breach in manners. Always remember this. Good manners may be quite artificial conventions, such as driving on one side of the road or another, but violation of the convention shows disrespect and want of consideration for other people. Just as often, however, good manners, however conventional in form, are rooted in a concern for other people. Covering your mouth and nose with a handkerchief when you sneeze or cough is the right thing to do, whether your handkerchief is made out of silk or cotton or is simply paper towel, and holding the door for your wife teaches other men to respect her as a lady. Hauling out your iPhone at drinks or dinner, by contrast, simply tells the world you are a Jerk who does not care at all about how what you do may affect others.
How to respond to these offenses? With friends, perhaps, a gentle joke will suffice, and if it does not, you can excuse yourself and leave. Back in ancient times when television was the most offensive form of technology, I read (and heard personally) of couples who, when they were invited over to someone's house for drinks, were confronted by a blaring TV set. Some of them politely and sweetly excused themselves after the first fifteen minutes, saying, "I know you must have other things to do." The floor is open for suggestions.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.