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.