Another Manners Maven


Hello, this is H. Kram Nevets with my second installment of The Manners Maven. Today we dissect two more electronic age assaults on common courtesy.

No, you DON’T have to take this call
Many people have already written about mobile phone bad habits. One of the worst behaviors, of course, is the practice of interrupting a current conversation to answer a ringing, chiming, chirping, rapping, or squawking cell phone. I once heard someone describe this as the “first in, last out syndrome” where anyone who interrupts gets to jump to the head of the line. I think that violates every known principle of good manners. This is especially true because every cell phone comes with a service called voice mail. The key thing about voice mail is that it records a message for every interrupting call in temporal order. So taking a call during a meeting or conversation is not merely rude, it is really most deliberately rude. The message being conveyed is that all other conversations are more important than the one in process right now.

The reign of the mobile phone’s social superiority complex goes far beyond that. Countless times I have been in a meeting or conversation where other participants are constantly checking their phones. Is the discussion so boring that you must break up the monotony with the badminton scores from Vassar? Is the meeting content so unimportant that you need to check on your pork belly futures right now? Is your attention span so short that we need to add periodic recess periods so that you can fiddle with your gizmos? Or is this merely a technological substitute for the honored tradition of doodling? My answer is a resounding, “No.” When accessing unrelated information, one’s attention goes away entirely. There is a place for the electronic device during meetings, particularly when a question is raised that requires an immediate answer. I can look up the starting date for Daylight Savings Time while keeping an ear on the conversation. But that is different from wholesale and sustained dual attention. If you really need to be doing something during the meeting, please take notes.

The antisocial sovereignty of the cellular culture extends well beyond the workplace. Take my Saturday morning grocery shopping as an example. Yes I carry my cell phone with me and yes I will answer it if it rings. If it is anyone other than my wife (with a shopping list addition) or a call requiring more then fifteen seconds, I will take it outside the store or offer to call back. I presume that others around me are not interested in listening to half of an irrelevant conversation, nor do I wish to share my half with strangers. Yet invariably, there will be a bloke in the dog food aisle shoving Alpo into his cart with one hand while describing in revolting vividness the details of his Aunt Minnie’s gall bladder surgery. Two aisles over will be a woman trying to hold the freezer case door open with her knee wrestling a box of frozen lasagna out of the case with her right hand, cell phone clasped to her ear with her left hand, chattering on about the precise location on her boy friend’s anatomy where he got the My Little Pony tattoo. Follow them to the checkout lane and the conversations persist, failing to subside even when the checker needs to ask a question. The best the unfortunate clerk will receive is a scowl and a curt shake of the head.

Imagine that! The temerity of some people, interrupting a phone conversation in such a scurvy manner! It would be different if the phone had rung during a conversation between the clerk and the customer. That calls for an interruption, right? Wrong! Good manners do not work only one direction simply because technology is involved. My pappy done taught me that I should dance with the gal I brung, and I still believe the pan-applicable wisdom of his advice. If one is out in public, that is where you should be engaged. If one is in a meeting, that should be the focus. If one is already on a call, stay on the call until that interaction is complete. The person you are talking with right now is the most important person in the world, and deserving of your complete attention.

I’m not saying that virtual engagement is wrong. I am saying that the interruptions are. Sure there are exceptions. There can be family emergencies or one might take a call while waiting for an important call back. There are polite ways to handle those situations. Simply put, I object to the cell phone as an excuse for bad manners. Besides, why would one choose not to be fully engaged in the here and now? My wife chided me once because of my obstinate refusal to use the ATM, even when the bank is closed. “Honey,” I replied, “I know everyone at the bank and they know me. Why would I not wait until I could walk in and talk to them in person?” My Saturday grocery regime is enriched by casual conversations with the people I see every week as well as with total strangers. One might argue that such interactions are possible through technological media. I would agree, but would counter that the in-person experience is richer in the same way experiencing live music is better than a CD, no matter the quality of the sound system. The exchange is palpable.

I have often thought about how different Inferno might look if Dante Alighieri were alive today. I picture a circle of hell for the ill-mannered (positioned between limbo and lust) in which the contrapasso would be a phone call interrupted by a phone call interrupted by a phone call, and so on for eternity. A little much you think? Well maybe, but if you have the fortune (good or bad) to encounter me in person, please leave your cell phone in your pocket. I promise to do the same.

I can see that math is not your strong suit.
In business as in life, we have certain minimum expectations when it comes to the skill sets of the people we work with. I know I do. First, I expect a rudimentary capability to read and write in the language in which we have agreed to communicate. Second, I expect a secure grasp of the first ten counting numbers (i.e., 1, 2, 3, etc.). You do not need to be able to add them, divide them, or solve for x with them (although that is not such a bad idea). You merely need to be able to count with them, and be able to differentiate accurately between two rubber chickens and eight rubber chickens. I trust this is reasonable.

So given these two reasonable expectations, if one were to send an email to a colleague and pose three questions, how many answers should one anticipate in the subsequent response? Without presuming to solve for x, my answer is three: three questions result in three answers. Apparently my algebra is flawed. All too frequently, the response arrives with a single answer.

Years ago I assumed that this was due to a flaw in how I posed the questions. So I worked on simplifying the language, a practice to which most of you know I am opposed (see Dumb Down Steve). My effort was to no avail. Then it occurred to me that if I numbered the questions, it would be more obvious that there were in fact three questions, not merely one with other words tacked on as a linguistic filigree. This became a standard way for me to email multiple questions. It was no better. The answer-to-question ratio remained dismally low. I pondered the conundrum again. Then it struck me that merely numbering the questions might not have been a sufficient clue that more than one question was involved. After that I began adding the number of questions to the email subject in order to call out the fact even before the body of the email was viewed. It looks something like this: “3 QUESTIONS regarding the daily sales feed.” I used the numeral along with capital letters in order to make it stand out. When that failed to improve my hit percentage I despaired of understanding why all questions couldn’t be addressed in a single email. The best I could figure was that my initial premise about the first ten whole numbers was untrue. So I began asking only a single question per email. That only made matters worse, for in those cases where I routinely received two out of three, my hit ratio fell to one out of three.

I have given up looking for a solution. I accept the fact that I cannot change the behavior. Sure, you might put it all down to carelessness exacerbated by the fact that the recipient returned two text messages, took three phone calls, and checked Facebook while reading the message. So when did carelessness become a justification for bad manners? If I ask you three questions, answer three questions. “I don’t know,” is a perfectly valid answer. So is, “I can find out, but not until tomorrow.” “Go talk to Curly,” works too. I will even accept, “Go take a long walk off a short pier!” just so long as you have demonstrated to me that you have read every question I have asked and indicated for each one when or if I should expect an answer.

By now, you are no doubt beginning to see a pattern emerge, and it is not merely that this writer is a cranky old technophobe. Okay, I am old and cranky, but not a technophobe. Technology is a terrific tool for bringing people together. But while the “instant gratification” nature of it is enticing, it is causing wholesale erosion in the quality of our manners and our social interactions.   I am certainly not immune; I caught myself being guilty of the behavior in the preceding paragraph just the other day. And by the way, that was after I had written the first draft of this post. Clearly, there is much left to do in our battle against global rudeness. Perhaps we just need to slow down a bit and actually read text for comprehension. Perhaps it really is not necessary to act and respond faster than the speed of thought.


Thus ends the second installment of The Manners Maven. Stay tuned. I will be back in two weeks with the final episode in this serial.

8 thoughts on “Another Manners Maven

  1. Anonymous says:

    Amen Steven, I see this also happening with land lines at HomeDepot for example. Standing at the service counter and 5 minutes into resolving a problem and, ring ring. Next thing you know I am put back in the cue.

  2. bimuse says:

    Absolutely agreed. If you are having to interrupt an interaction with a customer to help another, the company has a process problem (or a training problem). And HomeDepot is a curious example too, because I have seen employees there refuse to be interrupted while helping one customer. Perhaps it is an inconsistency in the training. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. Billy Hamilton says:

    Nicely done, Maestro! I agree on all points, but also have the occasional case where the phone rings (humms, because I never let my phone ring in a meeting) and have to look at it. Based on who it is, I *DO* sometimes need to take the call. I wonder if smart watches will make this better, or worse?

  4. bimuse says:

    I appreciate the kind words, my friend. I realize that there are always exceptions. My fear is that all too often the exceptions become the rule. If my house is on fire, the interruption is warranted because a failure to act immediately could be disastrous. But because we have these devices that catch us in real time pretty much anywhere, I think we might exaggerate the need to “re-queue” reality. It really is a fine line, though, isn’t it? Thank you for contributing to the dialog.

  5. Beth says:

    And I say, “Amen”, too! In this vein, I sometimes find myself thanking God that I am not so terribly important to the rest of the world. I find that I usually can turn the ringer off during business meetings or even private engagements and check for calls, text messages, and emails during breaks or whenever I am next alone and unengaged. So far nothing disastrous has happened in my life as a result, and if people choose not to use voice mail (or the answering machine on my landline), then I guess it wasn’t important enough to interrupt my life with it in the first place.
    I could actually start ranting about the whole thing of all questions not being answered when I ask more than one in an email, but I’ll spare you the tantrum. You’ve put things very well, and I suppose there is no solution. Sad.

  6. bimuse says:

    You made me laugh, Beth. At the same time, I think you nailed it when you said that nothing disastrous would happen. It rarely would, even to the “über wichtige Personen.” I sometimes think that it is a psychological crutch for those who need to show everyone else just how important they are.

    And I agree that there is no solution. You could only solve it for the self-aware folks, but they only need occasional reminding because bad manners is rarely a problem in that demographic.

    Mit freundlichen Grüßen!

  7. Christopher says:

    The cell phone thing, I think, is yet another example of a larger issue – that so many communications mechanisms today are event-based, when humans are not that great at operating in an event-based rather than task-based way. Context-switching takes a lot more effort than it *feels* like it takes, and some context almost always lost in the shuffle (c.f. the 2006 psychological study that showed people tend to dump their short term memory when they go through a door – ). I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of the problem: a psychological tendency to respond to an alert by context-switching, which requires active effort to suppress. Unless you’re dealing with someone who’s already made a habit of analyzing their own reactions and behaviors, the need to exert that effort might never even occur to them.

    Of course, how to bring that up tactfully is an open question.

    • bimuse says:

      The question is a tough one, Chris, and I think you put your finger on a key aspect with “Unless you’re dealing with someone who’s already made a habit of analyzing their own reactions and behaviors…” I fall back on the argument that the tendency to “respond to an alert” is less prevalent in people who are inherently more self-aware. In addition to the fact that the self-aware person will be more likely to analyze their own reactions and behaviors, they also are more aware when they themselves are interrupted. Say that I am having a conversation with someone about an important distinction. His phone rings and he takes the call while I sit there for three minutes looking around the coffee shop for cobwebs, totally losing my train of thought. Of course, I could pull out my phone and scan the news feeds and make him wait when his call is finished, but the point is that I don’t wish to be that guy. Bottom line, getting back to where the conversation was before it was interrupted will be difficult.

      Thank you for the link to the study. Very interesting. Excellent extension to the conversation.

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