Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PHYSICAL PROXIMITY AND ELECTRONIC SEPARATION....Walter Kirn writes about chatting with a guy at a bar recently and being constantly interrupted by the guy's Treo:

His face changed had some important message arrived? Still speaking to me, but without much focus now, he tapped out a line or two of text with his amazingly prehensile thumbs. He'd left the scene, I sensed; he was somewhere else. At headquarters, perhaps. And I'd been placed on hold.

I didn't like it. I never like it. And it happens constantly. I'll be in the middle of what I take to be a sincere human interaction with somebody and they'll start cutting in and out checking the Blackberry, texting on the cell phone, stylus-ing the electronic calendar. No apologies, either. No 'excuse mes.' As though a mixture of physical proximity and electronic separation is the accepted new mode of social togetherness.

Hear hear. I've never even gotten used to something as mundane as call waiting, let alone our brave new BlackBerry/Treo/cell/IM/text world. But that's just me. And I suspect Kirn is right: as with talking in theaters, this doesn't really represent a breakdown in civility, even though it seems that way to people like me. It's just a social change, and 30 years from now it will seem as natural as self-serve gasoline does today.

But I doubt I'll ever get used to it myself.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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Not to worry. In 30 years everyone with a cell phone will have died of cancer, weeding the interest in using these things right out of the gene pool.

Posted by: cld on April 23, 2006 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Bravo, Kevin.

And thank-you for including "call waiting," which I view as institutionalized rudeness. I suppose I should admit, in addition, that I always feel somewhat rejected when a friend interrupts a phone conversation with me to see who else is calling, although if said person explains that they are waiting for an "important" call, one with someone generally difficult to reach,I manage to take it less personally.

Posted by: Leah A on April 23, 2006 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

I'm from Jersey. We're still not used to self-serve when we leave the state.

Posted by: Neil on April 23, 2006 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

Hell, I don't even have an answering machine or service at home.
Ran a movie the other night for a bunch of the incoming freshman at the nearby college. These little twits, even after being asked to turn off their cell phones, actually chatter on them during the movie. Not just a quick "I can't talk now" full fledged conversations. And I continue to be amazed by the number of kids who will pay to go to a concert or movie and then spend most of the show in the lobby chatting on their phones.

Damn Kids!

Posted by: Martin on April 23, 2006 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

It is just selfishness, self-centeredness, pure and simple. Everyone feels self-important, so why bother seriously attending to someone else?

Posted by: Mimikatz on April 23, 2006 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Mimikatz.

I had a boss, a good one, who was a busy man. But if I was in his office briefing him and the phone rang, he ignored it. He gave all of his attention to the current person he was dealing with.

And in return, if he was on the phone with someone, no, it was not ok to interrupt. I've tried to put that in practice in my own life.

Posted by: Wapiti on April 23, 2006 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Text messaging is a great revenge tool for jilted lovers.

Posted by: Matt on April 23, 2006 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

Lisa Belkin had an article on this phenomenon recently, coining several new terms.
for the original article and http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/23/jobs/23wcol.html for the follow up one.

(I'm sorry, I wish I knew how to post hyperlinks)

Posted by: Elisa on April 23, 2006 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Right on, Wapiti. I'm the same way. When I'm meeting with someone phone calls go to voicemail or my assistant. If I'm in a meeting and someone starts with the blackberry a little box gets ticked in my head. If their senior to me I'll seethe. If they are junior to me tell them to knock it off.

They used to make the effort of hiding the blackberry below the level of the table and pretend to look at their notes or their laps (what could be so interesting down there!), but lately many people have dropped the pretense.

Posted by: Onomasticator on April 23, 2006 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

I'd just like to say, that talking in a movie theater is in fact a breakdown of civility. You're not the only one there to see a movie.

Posted by: zed on April 23, 2006 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

It's rude, pure and simple. it gives the message that whoever ever the person your with might be to you, their not nearly as imnportant as whatever the blackberry/cellphone might be receiving.

Posted by: TomStewart on April 23, 2006 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

30 years from now it will seem as natural as self-serve gasoline does today.

I call bullshit. There was a time when it was ok to blow smoke in someone's face - now, nobody would think of doing that. This is the same. Eventually, people will rebel.

Posted by: craigie on April 23, 2006 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

I agree, I consider talking in movie theaters to be uncivil, because I go to the movies to watch a movie, not to hear someone talk about it. But not everybody does. Going to the movies in a predominantly black part of town is quite a different experience. Many people go to the movies to watch a movie not just with the person they came with, but with everyone else in the theater. If something particularly stupid occurs on screen, and you have something to say about it, it's expected you'll just shout it out. It's kind of a Rocky Horror thing. Sometimes I like it, sometimes it pisses me off, but the point is what some may term uncivil behavior can arise not from selfishness but different expectations.

Posted by: foolishmortal on April 23, 2006 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

It is nothing new, just a change in location. Think back a decade. If you were in someone's office or even home, most would answer the phone in the midst of a discussion. The phone almost always had primacy. It was rude then and it is rude now; it has just mushroomed and now happens everywhere.

Posted by: Mudge on April 23, 2006 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

Get used to it Kevin! Rude is the new polite!

Posted by: mk on April 23, 2006 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Same old thing. Robert Frost wrote a delicious poem (whose title escapes me) involving a conversation in which one party, a very important man, reads through his mail while half-engaging with the other man.

Posted by: smintheus on April 23, 2006 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

WTF? Talking in theatres isn't rude? Keeping another person on hold (either on the phone or in person to SMS back someone else) isn't disrespecting their time?

You've lost me. How did you draw your conclusion that this will be acceptable in the future? It's considered rude today for a functional reason - that it costs another person their time with no benefit to them. Why will that be different in a decade?

Posted by: A on April 23, 2006 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

It's the same problem, new tech -- people assume that they should always get priority.

This is why the phone gets answered, even though you're already talking to someone face to face, and then gets answered again (via Call Waiting), now putting two people on hold.

It's even worse when you're trying to buy something, but the counter clerk is stuck on the phone.

The whole idea that somebody who calls should be servered faster than somebody who is present is pretty damn rude, but that's the rule. Let your finger do the walking, and screw those who actually walked.

Posted by: Erik V. Olson on April 23, 2006 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

The electronic version is bad, but there's another one that I've given up friendships over: the kid interruption. You're in the middle of a conversation with a friend and her kid will come running up saying "Mommy..." and at that instant your conversation is effectively over, because her attention is abruptly focused 100% on the kid. I've seen dads do this, too - it's not just moms.

I've also seen little kids who seemed to need to compete with me for their parent's attention, which strikes me as being a bit sad. That's a competition I'm more than happy to lose.

This is one of those things that I will only admit to given the anonimity of the internet. There will be people who call me whiny and selfish for being annoyed by this; but I don't need those people to be my friends, either...

(Ooo, defensive today.)

Posted by: CaliforniaDrySherry on April 23, 2006 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Talking in theaters is definitely a breakdown in civility. Once you get past your obnoxious teenage years, there's no young/old gap on this. In fact, most of the annoying talkers I encounter are elderly.

Posted by: digamma on April 23, 2006 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Uhhh...no. Studies show that people don't really multi-task, they just switch attention from one subject to another and lose quite a bit of efficiency when they do so. As you probably already know from watching the guy ahead of you on the freeway answer his phone.

Today's "multi-taskers" are just yesterday's ditherheads with some new toys.

One of my early bosses told me "Carry a clipboard and a pencil and people will think you're working". Today it's a PDA and a cell phone.

Posted by: serial catowner on April 23, 2006 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

You know, I don't think we will get used to it. It has always been rude to not pay attention to the person you're conversing with who's right in front of you, in favor of some distraction, and it always will be. The problem is the distractions come so easily these days, and our manners haven't kept up. I don't imagine a time where everyone will be okay with everyone interrupting a conversation every minute or two to respond to what is almost certainly a relatively unimportant text/email/phone call, etc.

Posted by: Alexander Wolfe on April 23, 2006 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

And that is so right about the kids. My parents had relationships with adults, and we children were told to go play with each other.

Today, if your acquaintance has children, your relationship to them will be at the age level of their children.

Kinda hard to be a role model when you voluntarily surrender anything you might have learned from growing up.

Posted by: serial catowner on April 23, 2006 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

Add me to the list who believe that talking during a movie and on to a cellphone are a break down of civility. And let me add one more to the list: flip-flops. This has become my new source of anger during the spring months. You know I don't mind that people want to have their feet out in the sun, but when I'm sitting in a coffee shop or a bookstore and someone decides to put their feet up on the couch or on top of a table I'm ready to go postal. There was a point where you couldn't even go into a McDonalds without proper shoes, now people feel that its their right to force you to have to interact with their dirty, smelly feet.

Posted by: Derrick on April 23, 2006 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

With CA Fino (Fina?).

I may be older but my daughter and her friends (17-19) don't seem too bad on this point.

I won't stand for it (except from a boss or customer type!). And a Black audience is interacting with the event, you have to be part of it. I went to a fringe theatre and some Black kids who had been brought along to see it (Venus) did the same thing. It was refreshing and, in Shakespeares day also, acceptable.

Having to listen to others cell phone conversations in the same place would not be.

Posted by: notthere on April 23, 2006 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

We should include the cashier and the bagger at the checkout counter who treat the customer as interrupting their important conversations.

Posted by: JB (not John Bolton) on April 23, 2006 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

If this is really such a breakdown in civility, I'm sure Bill bennet will write a book about it and clear it up for all of us.

Posted by: tom on April 23, 2006 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with the "talking in a movie theater *is* rude" crowd. I understand that there may be some venues where talking's more or less expected, and in that case it's different -- but if you go to a movie for the sake of seeing the movie, and you're constantly being jerked out of the film's world by the comments of people around you, it really wrecks the movie for you. Especially if it's one you've never seen before.

Shoshana, who has a cell phone but never receives calls on it

Posted by: Shoshana on April 23, 2006 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

I have a personal policy of not answering my phone when I'm with people. The only exception is when I'm expecting a call. As for children, I don't have any but I would think that something as basic as "mommy and daddy are talking, you need to wait" should be taught as early as possible. Basic consideration is a precious commodity sometimes...

Posted by: r_m on April 23, 2006 at 5:41 PM | PERMALINK

Gadgets and cellphones are designed to help us with things in life as they get more and more complicated. Cellphones are made easy now a days and are a good thing to have.

Posted by: Dr.Q on April 23, 2006 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

As this seems to be a "pet peeve" thread, why not? I despise cell phones - and I believe they have led to a coarsening of our culture and have made driving much more hazardous. Walk down the street in NYC or any other large city and every fifth person is talking on a phone, too loud and usually about something inane and pointless. Blackberrys are worse - I have a friend who is addicted. He sits in meetings and checks it endlessly and sits typing replies and tuning out the present company and meeting topics. Extremely annoying and distracting. Teenagers are entirely dependenet on cell phones, flipping them open immediately after leaving class. Studies have shown teens have lost certain memorization skills (such as remembering phone number), because they have the numbers programmed into their phone's memory and they don't need to use those neural pathways. Take away their phones and they are helpless.

In my view, human civilization prospered just fine for tens of thousands of years without them, so I have no intention of ever owning one.

Posted by: Stephen Kriz on April 23, 2006 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

All the cell phone, text messaging addicts need a dose of Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) who wrote "BE HERE NOW" back in the day.

Posted by: R. Howe on April 23, 2006 at 7:47 PM | PERMALINK

Being a young member of the cell phone generation leads me to believe this problem is only going to get worse before (or if it ever) gets better. Sadly, I'm falling into the trap as well, which I'm ashamed to say, and I'm one of the few people who will actively prod friends to stop talking on cell phones when we're out, telling them to their face that their behaviour is rude and insulting to me as I am the one standing there at whatever gathering we planned to do together, not the person on the cell phone. The worst friend I ever had with this problem was a friend who simply was incapable of not answering his cell phone, especially if it was his girlfriend or his mother, at which point he'd wander off somewhere to mutter platitudes or talk them down from the issue of the minute (it wasn't uncommon over the course of an hour for him to get 4 or 5 phone calls from the two of them combined, easily spending 1/4 of said hour on the phone with them).

I finally gave him an ultimatum: either leave the cell phone behind, or I will not do anything with you. He ended up surrendering his cell phone to me whenever we'd go out and I'd turn it off, and things got better because of it. Sometimes the hard line is the only way to go with people... I've been known to just walk away when someone picks up their cell phone mid-conversation with me, and when they complain about me being rude I throw it right back at them. If you can't make 'em think about it, they'll never learn.

Posted by: Kit Smith on April 23, 2006 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

My new phone came with a bunch of great features, including my personal favorite: the off button.

Posted by: moderleft on April 23, 2006 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

Nice job, Kit. You give me hope for the future. Some folks have to be metophorically knocked over the head. I realize that it's often a generational thing, but I refuse to deal with anyone who doesn't give me the kind of attention I give them. I ignore the ringing cellphone if I am working with one of my students, and they are expected to do the same. I have quit socializing with people who can't seem to get away from their phone. And please don't get me started on the parents who won't (not can't) control their kids. People can only be as rude to you as you allow them to be ...

Posted by: Roy on April 24, 2006 at 2:04 AM | PERMALINK

"human civilization prospered just fine for tens of thousands of years without them, so I have no intention of ever owning one."

Human civilization prospered just fine for tens of thousands of years without electricity, internet, antiseptic, the telegraph, flight, crude oil, and a million other things. What modern advances are you taking advantage of to write this message?

Seconding the "turn your damn fone off in movies and meetings", "teach your brats not to interrupt when we're speaking", "the customer in front of you takes priority over the customer on the fone", "bluetooth headsets are for driving only" and "at least apologise if you MUST, MUST answer a crucial message on your crackberry". I say this as a person with push email who is at least polite with it...

Posted by: Paul Allen on April 24, 2006 at 3:27 AM | PERMALINK

It's your fault - y'all did a shitty job raising your kids. Bad parenting + new techonolgy = self absorbed new hires. Maybe instead of carting Tiffany and Breck around to all those activities you could have actually taught them manners. Just a thought.

Posted by: GenX on April 24, 2006 at 4:33 AM | PERMALINK

It may not be a breakdown in civility in the sense of "it would never happen in the old days", but it most certainly is uncivil.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow on April 24, 2006 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

Stephen Kriz,

Actually I think it is kinda funny to lament the good old days when kids actually had to learn to remember random strings of seven digits. Because before those good old days were the real good old days when people didn't need to remember any numbers.

But really - y'all are going at this all wrong. You can piss and moan until the cows come home about the rudeness of others but it won't change.

So look at it another way - this is your chance to excell! To stand out in the world of global competition and to be seen as worthy of the next promotion.

Personally I'm glad when I see boorish behaviour in my co-workers. They are totally clueless in the area of face to face human interaction. As a result I come across as 'likable' and 'attentive' and 'smart' and a 'leader,' all because I practice what should be common sense. (But thank God it isn't common sense, because it gives me my edge!)

Maybe I'm a little tongue-in-cheek but not so much really.

The truth is we never really had a meritocracy, not really, and we are getting farther and farther away from one. "People skills" are becoming more and more important and I'm surprised we don't have classes in them. But 'finishing school' and 'etiquette' seem so quaint now don't they?

Posted by: Tripp on April 24, 2006 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

What the hell is a Treo? Call me a luddite. Call me out of the loop. This is one loop I avoid as much as possible. These technologies which are supposed to bring us together are only driving us apart.

Posted by: Blue Blue Texan on April 24, 2006 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

I can't even carry on a simple conversation with any of my employees these days without being interrupted by a ringing cell phone or a PDA. Don't even get me started about staff meetings, which are apparently held solely so that my employees can tend to their personal business. The irony is that I tried to start communicating primarily through email, only to find that my employees are "too busy" to read their email! I guess I should just IM or text message them.

Posted by: Pocket Rocket on April 24, 2006 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

I agree in part, and dissent in part:

I don't have a problem with call waiting -- most people still don't use an answering machine or voicemail service at home that will automatically pick up when they're already on the phone. Perhaps we should, but we technophobes are slow to change. As with a small child or a doorbell that clamors for our attention during a call or a face-to-face conversation, the polite thing to do is to say, "excuse me for just a moment, please," deal with the interruption as quickly as possible, and return to the original conversation, perhaps with a pro forma apology for the interruption. This is not a big deal.

But there's seldom a reason to answer a cell phone or Treo in the middle of a conversation -- they automatically record the caller, and most callers can be called back at one's convenience. Super-busy types who pride themselves on being instantly available at all times to their boss, clients, or customers probably lose as much by irritating the people they're with as they gain by their availability. And that irritation is well-founded: we don't have infinite time for face-to-face meetings, and if the people we meet aren't going to actually be there for them (barring short, unavoidable interruptions), why bother? Taking time out for constant electronic interruptions is at least as rude as turning up the same amount of time late and explaining that ordinary business matters were simply more important than this meeting. Grown-ups schedule.

Posted by: trilobite on April 24, 2006 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

um, yeah, actually it is a breakdown in civility. and talking in movie theaters is always rude.

good manners is the glue that holds society together. think about it: most laws, including those that protect public safety, work not b/c there's a law enforcement officer hovering over our collective shoulder night and day. they work b/c we all agree tacitly to abide by those laws, even when not doing so carries little or no penalty. rewrite enough golden rules and the mundane business of living becomes far more dangerous.

I don't think I'm an old fart (at 36) on this, but it can't be coincidence that during the same time ignorant jackasses yack incessantly on their cell phones in movies, on buses, that drivers blow red lights and don't bother using turn signals (perhaps the most conveniently located and polite warning device on a car). conduct like this hints at a narcissism bordering on the sociopathic: someone else's well-being is an inconvenience to be ignored.

Posted by: mencken on April 24, 2006 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

Loud movie-talking bugs me, but there's still a difference between a bunch of kids getting into the movie and yelling things like "DON'T GO DOWN THEM STAIRS, YOU DUMB SHIT!", and people who blithely carry on about what X said to Y at the office/school/club last night. The latter are a menace.

Posted by: Hob on April 24, 2006 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

On a related note, I'm struck by how much of the work previously done by admin assistants is now being done by senior management who one assumes should really be focusing on other things. Does management really need to be constantly distracted by the flow of emails through their balckberries? In my experience, the art of the business meeting has certainly suffered from compusive blackberry thumb-typing and wheel-spinning

Posted by: aidan on April 24, 2006 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK
This is why the phone gets answered, even though you're already talking to someone face to face, and then gets answered again (via Call Waiting), now putting two people on hold.

The solution, of course, is to have your own cellphone, and if someone picks up a call while having a FtF with you, you immediately call them and become the person on call-waiting that gets answered.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 24, 2006 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

Another cry from the wilderness. Repeal the McCarran Ferguson Act of 1945.

This gem of a bill did away with insurance federal oversight by the federal government and left oversight to states; with limited resources to match the behemoth insurance conglomorates and their bevy of lobbyists and schmoozing $$$, of course the consumer got screwed.

The bill was passed over 60 years ago when the Supreme Court ruled that insurance federal oversight was not unconstitutional.

Posted by: Mimi Schaeffer on April 24, 2006 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK



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