It’s not yet clear when it’s a bad call to use your phone
The decorum of portable communication is still in its infancy
There is virtually no point in the day when we are free from the tyranny of the telephone. Photograph: Frank Miller
An intriguing incident in north London has kicked up some worthwhile questions about modern manners and the etiquette of mobile phone use. It seems that a checkout assistant in Sainsbury’s refused to serve one Jo Clarke until the customer hung up her mobile phone.
Days later Jo was able to celebrate one of those pathetically tiny victories that make life just about bearable. “We have apologised to Ms Clarke and offered her some vouchers,” a spokesperson for Sainsbury’s commented. “It isn’t our policy to not serve customers who are using a mobile phone.”
My distant relation’s mistake was to allow the information to circulate during the silly season when there’s nothing in the papers bar trivial nonsense such as regime change in north Africa. Before too long, dumb columns such as this were alive with speculation as to the rights and the wrongs of the situation.
Commendably enough, popular opinion seems to have come down heavily on the side of the shop assistant. Obviously, the speculation was founded on an imagined caricature of the situation. Scowling yuppie screams rudely into her device while cowering worker tentatively attempts to make some sort of social connection. That sort of thing. For all we know, Ms Clarke could have been attempting to talk a depressive down from the window-ledge of a skyscraper.
Much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, such incidents don’t really point towards any significant decline in manners. It’s true that people now behave like pigs in cinemas. If they’re not laying out enormous picnics or investigating each other’s underwear, they are providing moronic running commentaries on the action.
Ask them politely to stop talking and they look at you as if you’ve suggested sacrificing their firstborn in a blood ritual. The Lizard-people of Planet Bongo behave better during their rutting season. If I had a machine gun I’d . . .
Hang on. Where was I? Oh, yes. My point was that – for all these outbreaks of sociopathic inconsideration – manners haven’t really declined so badly. We may be less formal. But we are a little less likely to be racist, sexist, homophobic or unthinking in our treatment of people with disabilities. If you don’t believe this then have a look at television comedy of the 1970s. Treating minorities with respect counts as good manners.
It would, also, be hard to argue that people are more hierarchical in their everyday dealings with retailers and service providers. Indeed, outrages such as Starbucks’ habit of asking your forename before handing over your coffee confirms that a kind of egalitarian chumminess is now thought to exist between server and served. When attempting to shut a taxi driver up through the use of curt monosyllables, I find myself hoping that he or she understands no snobbery is involved. I would treat a chatty dentist, neurosurgeon or passing archdeacon in exactly the same manner.