Mobile phones: the new etiquette
I have always regarded myself as a mannerly sort of person, but I’ve just realised that I have, in fact, been gliding through modern life with all the grace of a baboon in flip-flops.
The revelation came last week when a British supermarket apologised to a shopper after one of its checkout workers refused to serve her until she got off her phone. The customer was offered £10 in vouchers by way of compensation.
This news is disconcerting. I feel like I’ve just discovered I’ve been going around with an entire vegetable patch embedded in my teeth. I thought, mistakenly it now seems, that mobile phone etiquette could be boiled down as follows: the person you were engaged with first – in this case, the person on the phone – comes first.
So wedded was I to the notion that real life interjections should not be allowed to derail phone conversations that my five-year-old was once forced to mime someone dying in order to get my attention while I was on a call. He did this by repeatedly falling to the floor with his hands around his throat, making strangulated noises, until I eventually excused myself.
In the event, of course, no-one had actually died, and I managed to stem the flow of blood and apply an icepack to the wound without once making the person on the other end of the phone feel like I had more important things to deal with.
Now, it seems I needn’t have bothered. The etiquette guide, Debrett’s, comes down clearly on the side of the supermarket worker on this one: “Don’t carry on mobile phone calls while transacting other business. It is insulting not to give people who are serving you your full attention.”
I realise that etiquette conventions evolve all the time to deal with the challenges of new technology – after all, these days, hardly anyone still shouts “Ahoy!” in the manner of Alexander Graham Bell when they answer the telephone. But that’s not much comfort when you discover that you may have inadvertently been leaving trails of murderous retail assistants in your wake.
So what other rules of modern etiquette have managed to pass me by? On your behalf, and my own, I decided to investigate.
1. “Leaving a voicemail is rude.” This revelation comes from the New York Times technology writer, Nick Bilton. It explains why no-one ever returns my voicemails any more – turns out they weren’t being lazy; they were subtly trying to let me know that I had committed the communications equivalent of a digestive indiscretion at the dinner table.
2. “Don’t send a ‘thank you’ message.” According to Bilton and Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of manners guru Emily Post, in an era where people are drowning in digital communications, sending a “thank you” message by email, text or tweet, is sometimes ruder than not saying “thank you” at all.
3. “Use your Xs wisely.” Debrett’s advises against using Xs in emails and text messages altogether. Indeed, one recent survey found that one in three people regard Xs at the end of a message as an attempt at seduction.
4. “Irish goodbyes are acceptable.” I’d never heard of an Irish goodbye before I came across a reference to it last week in the US online magazine, Slate. If I’d had to guess, I’d have ventured that it involved repeating the word “Bye” 11 times as you put down the phone, or finding your efforts to leave the pub derailed by people buying you pints.
According to Slate, however, it is American for “leaving a social gathering without saying your farewells . . . [because you are] too tipsy to manage a proper denouement”.
5. “It is extremely bad manners to go around teaching etiquette, unasked, to people who are minding their own business”, cautions the 74-year-old American etiquette expert, Judith Martin. Or, as Khalil Gibran once put it, “the real test of good manners is to be able to put up with bad manners pleasantly”. Take note, retail assistants.
So now you know. I’d sign off here, but it’s probably more polite if I just slink quietly away. No need to thank me. No, really. Don’t mention it.