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

Sat, Jul 6, 2013, 13:00

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 . . .

Modern manners
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.

Telephone tyranny
The story does, however, confirm how this handy communication device has altered every aspect of our lives. There is virtually no point in the day when we are free from the tyranny of the telephone. Alerts from forgotten apps wake you in the middle of the night. Fit people use their headphones when running marathons. Slope-headed Neanderthals answer them in cinemas and discuss dinner arrangements while decent people strain to keep their attention on the film. If usherettes were equipped with sabres they could . . .

I’ve got off the topic again. The case of Ms Clarke illustrates that, so rapid has been the rise of mobile phones, we have yet to work out the correct etiquette governing their use. Is it acceptable to answer the phone when talking to a friend in the street? Probably. After all, you would answer the blower at home if you had guests round. A text is, however, a different matter. Your remote contact can, in those circumstances, surely wait until the current sentence has been finished.

Fiddling with your phone when in the company of casual acquaintances should seem unimaginably rude. You would not, after being introduced to a stranger, take out a newspaper and begin scrutinising the racing tips. But the phone has come to seem like an artificial limb or (more to the point) a remote extension of the owner’s brain. Couples now sit in restaurants poking at their devices while waiting for the starters to arrive. So what? Couples have been sitting in silence and thinking for centuries.

The truth is that nobody is yet sure whether it is “correct” to keep speaking on your phone when paying for cat food. It took centuries for medieval man to decide the correct protocol governing the wearing of swords. The decorum of portable communication is still in its infancy. That said, if some poor sap is scowl- ing at you then you are probably best advised to hang up.

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