My wife and I have had several conversations recently about the things and people in our days that rub us the wrong way. Things that seem specific to our new age, like the rampant use of cell phones and the instant culture of emailing and blogging. I started thinking more about etiquette, so I did some research. It turns out I am not the first person to think and write about the ways that the people in our society interact.
It struck me, though, that the first writings about decorum were from ancient Egypt; later we saw some social code from Confucius, and further along there were Roman writers and thinkers that covered the basics for their societies. The British took etiquette to the next level and created an entire society around it under Queen Victoria. But the rules were rarely revised early on, then we see revisions coming more frequently as our population and societies grow and change more rapidly. A sixteenth century code of conduct might not be revised officially until the late seventeenth century. Etiquette gurus like Emily Post had major influence with their books in the early and mid twentieth Century, but only for a few decades. Lately, we seem to be shifting paradigms very few years, let alone etiquette.
Our culture is transforming in a way that creates rapid change in social concerns and their resulting decorum. In the time that it takes a writer to define the current cultural dilemmas and address them with appropriate responses and try to define some acceptable social behaviors, the dilemmas that we face as a culture change. Printing a book on etiquette just takes too long. We aren’t talking about the basic needs of humanity that are ever present like poverty and hunger, those things are problems today and always have been, and we should continue addressing those problems. No, etiquette is seen as proper behavior, which is not in the foundation sections of the hierarchy of needs. We are just looking for someone to tell us how to get along with each other. And the changes in our society that reflect the kinds of advice that you might get are changing dramatically and rapidly.
For instance, there are volumes written about telephone etiquette. Do they apply to cell phones? That industry has changed in the last two or three years so that people aren’t even carrying their laptops anymore. They don’t need them; they have a phone. It is not rude to check the time on your watch in many cases, but to pull out your phone, flip it open, push a button to see the display, and then break off the conversation and hurry out of the room can be quite a production. I have been in several situations in the last few years where 8 or 10 people were in a room, and none of them had a watch. When the subject of time came up, everyone went for their pockets to retrieve the phone. And what about texting or emailing over the phone? Is that the same category as trying to find out how to behave with a telephone? You aren’t talking, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t be multi-tasking in the name of productivity.
I have heard, from many people, that the reason that they have a cell phone is in case their car breaks down or they find themselves in a ditch somewhere, they want to know that they are safe and in communication with the world. We have this brilliant new communication technology, so we have to adapt our behaviors for the better good. In defense of the omni-present phone, many would argue the countless lives that have been saved when accidents were reported immediately by passersby. So, why is it that I have only seen that actually happen one time, and most of the cell phone use that I encounter is in the check-out line at the grocery store? Isn’t that just rude? It seems to detract from the greater good, rather than contribute to it. As a matter of fact, without handy statistics, I wonder how many accidents have been caused by cell phones rather than aided by them.
As we, our culture, are catered to by technology and the marketing machine, we begin to feel more entitled to the things that we consume and the benefits of our service industry. The idea of serving others is lost on those who become complacent with being served themselves.
In the face of this technology and marketing, how do we continue to define etiquette? Do we even need to?