Hello once more. H. Kram Nevets here with my final installment in the Manners Maven franchise. I conclude with two short rhapsodies on how our technological tools, used thoughtlessly, can become instead an unwitting assault on interpersonal communication.
The Truth About SMS
For me, one of the most intriguing phenomena of the information age is text messaging on mobile phones. When the capability first emerged, it seemed like a valuable and easy way to communicate quietly and quickly when a phone call was not a viable option.
Back in the early days, phones had only the numeric keypad used for dialing. Consequently, inputting a message was difficult and took longer. This did not deter its rapid adoption as a mainstream communication medium, and users invented an entire vocabulary of abbreviations and short cuts (txt-speak) to make input easier. An entire generation has grown up with it as a preferred way to communicate. Now with the prevalence of smart phones packing full alpha keypads, it is even easier to compose text messages.
I am not a big user of texting but find it invaluable on occasion, most notably when traveling or in a situation where I do not wish to share my thoughts with those in my immediate vicinity. For instance, I can text my wife from a taxi to let her know that my flight arrived safely and save the phone call for when I am settled in at the hotel. My wife can even answer without the cabby being any the wiser. Similarly, I can let a colleague know that I am on my way (or not) when I am late for a meeting with a simple “there in 5” or “stuck in traffic.”
Some of my friends and colleagues use texting much more frequently than I do, which is okay under most circumstances. However, I draw the line when someone texts me a draft of his doctoral dissertation and expects me to respond in detail. It is not going to happen. First of all, my ancient fingers just do not work that way. Second, there are too few hours in a day.
Texting is a low latency (highly immediate) medium with an extremely low bandwidth. It operates over SMS (Short Message Service) on our mobile phones. As the name suggests, it is designed to transmit short messages. A paragraph pushes that definition. Multiple paragraphs certainly exceed it. Therefore, unless you know that you are communicating with a fellow text message doyenne who is fluent in txt-speak, I recommend avoiding protracted exchanges. The low bandwidth of the medium reduces communication quality while wasting valuable time.
Choosing the appropriate communications medium for any situation is both good sense and good manners. It demonstrates respect for the time and effort of one’s colleagues.
The Elevator Wraiths
I am both a fan and an aficionado of the great science fiction storyteller Rod Serling. While I will admit that he could be ham-fisted at times, what I admired most was his ability to take a simple human foible and spin a yarn that would take us deep into the Twilight Zone while also revealing the macabre underbelly of the foible. Submitted for your approval, a short tale of my own, written in the style of the Master.
“Meet Steven Everyman, an average businessman facing the tattered end of an average work day at the end of an average work week. He is waiting for the elevator on the twelfth floor of an average skyscraper in the center of an average city. Little does he know that in a few seconds, when the elevator doors open, he will begin a short journey that will take him directly through the center of…the Twilight Zone.”
When the elevator doors opened, Steven stepped into the empty car and pressed the button marked “L.” As the doors closed, he moved to the center of the car, facing toward the front. He glanced up at the row of lights indicating the floors, wondering to himself just how many stops there would be during the descent.
The car began to move downward and then slowed for a stop at the eleventh floor. The doors opened and a smartly dressed young woman stepped on. She carried a leather computer bag in her left hand and a cell phone in her right hand. She glanced quickly at the lit “L” button, and then took her place left of center, facing the front of the car. Steven automatically adjusted his position. As the doors closed, her right arm raised and she looked deeply into the phone, her fingers moving competently over the surface. Steven’s eyes darted left, noting her self-absorption, and then up to the row of indicator lights again.
At the tenth floor, the doors opened to reveal a trio of young men, who stepped into the car. They were dressed in casual business attire, one sporting a backpack and the others with computer bags. Two of them checked the “L” light while the third touched it as though the lit indicator might be incorrectly indicating its true status. They, too, turned to the front of the car and the five humanoids adjusted themselves to achieve precisely even spacing between their corporeal boundaries. As the doors closed, the three men drew cell phones from their khaki Dockers simultaneously and peered intensely into the instruments, their fingers mimicking the adept movements of their female counterpart.
Steven was now toward the back of the car with a clear view of his fellow travelers. Their individual concentration was profound. The only audible sound was the whirr of the elevator. Not even the sound of respiration could be heard as twenty fingers twitched silently, their owners veritable statues. Perhaps it was fatigue or maybe a trick of the light, but Steven thought that he discerned a shifting of light about them, almost like a hint of transparency.
His reverie was interrupted at the eighth floor, where two more passengers entered the elevator car. They performed the same ritual of verifying their destination and taking up their forward-facing positions. Not a single face looked up from their thrall as seven bodies adjusted to the space, and two more faces joined the intense scrutiny of their mobile devices.
Sweat appeared on Steven’s face as fear rose in his heart. What might have been a trick of the light before was beginning to happen. The shimmer of translucence was altering the six people ahead of him, and with every passing moment a sense of profound aloneness was overtaking his soul. He had backed tightly against the rear wall of the elevator, unsure what to do next.
Steven’s panic escalated as two more passengers got on at the seventh floor and three at the sixth. Now there were eleven elevator wraiths ahead of him in the car, each completely lost in the dreadful abyss of electronic bondage. As the elevator pursued its descent, they continued to fade from Steven’s sight. The overwhelming sense of loneliness seemed to be as some fetid horror, sucking away his very human essence. What was happening? Were they real? Had they been real once? Had he found himself in the midst of some grotesque zombie apocalypse turned sideways?
His terrified mind raced to identify his next move. Should he stay quiet and hope that they faded away into infinity before the car reached the lobby? Should he bolt at the next floor? Should he…? And then panic overwhelmed him.
“Aaaaaaaaaghhh!” he shrieked. “Am I totally alone?”
Eleven bodies jumped. Two phones clattered to the floor. All turned to stare at the wild-eyed creature huddled in the back corner of the elevator. They shook their heads silently, saying not a word to their companions as they stowed their phones and stepped out into the lobby. Let security handle it.
“A word to the wise. Choose your reality carefully. Is it inside that little slip of plastic, metal and silicon in your hand or is it with your fellow travelers on the elevator of life? Can you recognize the boundary between the two? Steven Everyman no longer can and has become a permanent resident in…the Twilight Zone.”
This ends my series on good manners in the electronic age. Feel free, as always, to share you ideas or peeves with The Manners Maven. And who knows, I may be back again in the future. After all, good manners are always de rigueur.