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Yesterday I was sitting in a restaurant with a woman I’ll call Mary, who is more than an ac- quaintance but less than a friend. We meet for coffee several times a year and invite each other to the occasional party. After we’d perused the menu, ex- claimed over the specials, decided that it was indeed wine time and ordered a bottle of shiraz, Mary leaned side- ways, fumbled in her purse, straightened up and then looked down at her lap. Suddenly, I was addressing the top of her head. I could tell from the minute movements of her biceps that she was texting. Then she started smil- ing. We were talking about the latest 3-D movie craze; I stopped talking mid-sentence, and Mary, so engaged in what text or email she was reading or sending, didn’t even notice.
I was shocked. Mary is a woman who says please and thank you, takes your coat and offers you something to drink when you go to her house and brings a bottle of something when she comes to your house. She is polite to a fault. Except, apparently, when it comes to her BlackBerry.
Did Mary imagine that I wouldn’t notice her under-thetable texting? Did she assume I’d notice—I’m not blind— but figured I wouldn’t mind since it was under the table and thus didn’t count (the favourite logic of men who pick their noses at stoplights, assuming that since they’re surrounded by sheet metal, somehow it’s less disgusting)? Or had she simply fallen into the habit of compulsively checking her phone because everyone else does it?
Whatever the reason, it was just plain iRude. Mary is hardly the worst offender. The last time I saw my friend Shauna, before we sat down with our lattes she said, “I’m expecting a call,” an admission that was supposed to absolve her from any guilt while she checked her phone every 90 seconds. I’m sure she was expecting a call—these days we’re all expecting a call, a text or an email. Our slavish devotion and addiction to our “CrackBerries” have made us more bad-mannered than the old-style crackhead who would at least have the good grace not to shoot up in the middle of dinner.
iRudeness is rampant. People regularly park their PDAs at their elbows, where they can glance at them every 20 seconds or so to see if a new call/text/email has come in that’s more interesting than whatever’s going on with the person sitting across from them. They talk on their cellphones while picking up their dry-cleaning or renting a DVD, making not only the counter person but everyone in line behind them wait until they’re finished. They also seem to no longer care who hears what. Last month I was on an airplane, and, before takeoff, my seatmate was chirping into her phone about the results from her recent colonoscopy.
I should point out that I can sit on my high horse because my own phone is ancient (i.e., two years old). Checking anything requires pressing a series of buttons and squinting into a small, scratched-up screen, while talking on it requires a level of vocal-cord-straining shouting that I’m simply not comfortable with. It’s too much effort for me to be iRude, but maybe if I had an iPhone, or another sleek device that employed touch technology, I’d be texting under the table and inventing fake important phone calls and singing about my recent medical procedures along with everyone else.
The larger question is: How did we get here? Are our responses to these bright, shiny objects Pavlovian? Are we helpless to ignore the way the thing shivers with delight when a text arrives or lights up like a tiny baseball scoreboard when an email drops into our inbox? Or perhaps our problem is an existential one that has simply been laid bare by new technology—we human beings have always struggled with being in the here and now. The grass is always greener beneath the feet of the person who’s texting us. A friend reminded me of a picture that made the rounds on the Internet during Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign: During one of Obama’s pivotal campaign speeches, a guy standing just behind the future president was checking his PDA.
iRudeness didn’t begin with the BlackBerry, however. We’ve become increasingly ill-mannered since the advent of texting ruined emailing. Emails, you may recall, were at one time an approximation of a letter, complete with a salutation, an inquiry about what was going on in the life of the recipient and a sign-off. Now, people are too busy to even address you by name. Last week, I got an email from someone who had read one of my books and gone to the trouble of finding my email in order to write to me. The subject line said “your book.” When I saw it, my heart lifted. A fan! The email said: “There’s a typo on top of page 36.”
That entire novels have been written on cellphones further makes the point: We have no problem writing huge numbers of words when we’re expressing ourselves, but the moment we have to extend ourselves in the interest of making the recipient feel appreciated (Hey, Emily! Hope this finds you well. How’s the kitchen remodel going?), we can’t be bothered. I’m not alone in finding all this behaviour rude. A small, highly unscientific poll of my Facebook friends revealed that pretty much everyone thinks that the only solution is to stand up and walk out of the lunch/dinner/drinks date when someone puts their interaction with their PDA before their face time with you, but none of them could bring themselves to do it. Manners, as my mother used to tell me, are about respect—for yourself, for the people in your life and for what we call civilized society. To throw your chair back and stomp out of a meal is also rude.
Then, two days ago, it happened again—another coffee shop, another friend, another iPhone. I stared at the top of my friend’s head as he gazed down at his phone, and then I had a brilliant idea. I dug my phone out of my purse, fired it up and texted him: “We really should get together sometime.” When he read it, he laughed, turned his phone off and stuck it in his back pocket. “Man, I’m sorry!” he said, proving that good manners aren’t completely dead.