Saturday, April 26, 2014

In Quest of Telephone Manners for the Modern Age

"Is this an instrument of communication or torture?"Lady Violet from Downton Abbey
“The universal use of the telephone is another factor in the modification of social customs. Among familiar friends, the little chat over the 'phone largely takes the place of the informal call. Also, invitations to any but strictly formal functions are now sent by telephone, if agreeable to both parties; though it is still considered better to adhere to the more respectful written form if there is any doubt about the new way being acceptable to the party of the second part. While I counsel conservatism in these changes, I am convinced that the new dynasty of wire and wireless is destined to dominate us; and as discovery continues and inventions multiply, the time is near when immediate communication will be had at long range; possibly telepathy—who knows? Or, possibly tele-photography with it—why not? Then, the slow, laborious writing of messages will be as much out of date as the super-annuated stage-coach.

But—not yet; we are still in the process of evolution. It is still safe to heed Pope's famous advice:

  "Be not the first by whom the new is tried,
  Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”
 Agnes H. Morton's  “Etiquette” from 1900

The telephone is a nuisance and no one denies it, but it is a necessity also and no one denies that, either, and one of the greatest conveniences in an age of great conveniences. Some of the disagreeable features connected with it cannot be done away with but must be accepted with as much tranquility as we can master, like the terrific noise which an aëroplane makes or the trail of smoke and cinders which a railway train leaves behind. The one who is calling, for instance, cannot know that he is the tenth or eleventh person who has called the man at the other end of the wire in rapid succession, that his desk is piled high with correspondence which must be looked over, signed, and sent out before noon, that the advertising department is waiting for him to O. K. their plans for a campaign which should have been launched the week before, that an important visitor is sitting in the library growing more impatient every minute, and that his temper has been filed down to the quick by an assortment of petty worries. (Of course, no office should be run like this, but it sometimes happens in the best of them.)

Some one has said that we are all like islands shouting at each other across a sea of misunderstanding, and this was long before telephones were thought of. It is hard enough to make other people understand what we mean, even with the help of facial expression and gestures, and over the wire the difficulty is increased a hundred fold. For telephoning rests upon a delicate adjustment between human beings by means of a mechanical apparatus, and it takes clear thinking, patience, and courtesy to bring it about.

"The Book of Business Etiquette," by Nella Henney, 1922


“There are two things that are as important to me as the bed in the bedrooms that I furnish, and they are the little tables at the head of the bed, and the lounging chairs. The little table must hold a good reading light, well shaded, for who doesn't like to read in bed? There must also be a clock, and there really should be a telephone. And the chaise-longue, or couch, as the case may be, should be both comfortable and beautiful.”
 From 1913's “The House in Good Taste” by Elsie de Wolfe


"Cell phone etiquette rules are still in their infancy, or possibly 'toddler years,' even though cell phones have now been with us for three decades.  It has only been in the last dozen years or so that their use has been so ubiquitous among old and young alike.  One can still go by the telephone etiquette rules, camera etiquette rules, and even videotaping etiquette rules of yesteryear, as a basic guide.  At the heart of those etiquette guidelines, one can see that they are still applicable in present day situations." Maura Graber, The RSVP Institute of Etiquette 

Emerging Talk-Rules: 

The Mobile Phone

Bringing one's phone along to a party wasn't always as simple as it is today.
Suddenly, almost everyone in England has a mobile phone, but because this is new, unfamiliar technology, there are no set rules of etiquette governing when, how and in what manner these phones should be used. We are having to ‘make up’ and negotiate these rules as we go along – a fascinating process to watch and, for a social scientist, very exciting, as one does not often get the opportunity to study the formation of a new set of unwritten social rules.

For example: I have found that most English people, if asked, agree that talking loudly about banal business or domestic matters on one’s mobile while on a train is rude and inconsiderate. Yet a significant minority of people still do this, and while their fellow passengers may sigh and roll their eyes, they very rarely challenge the offenders directly – as this would involve breaking other, well-established English rules and inhibitions about talking to strangers, making a scene or drawing attention to oneself. The offenders, despite much public discussion of this problem, seem oblivious to the effects of their behaviour, in the same way that people tend to pick their noses and scratch their armpits in their cars, apparently forgetting that they are not invisible.
"I have also noticed that many women now use their mobiles as ‘barrier signals’ when on their own in coffee bars and other public places, as an alternative to the traditional use of a newspaper or magazine to signal unavailability and mark personal ‘territory’." Kate Fox 
How will this apparent impasse be resolved? There are some early signs of emerging rules regarding mobile- phone use in public places, and it looks as though loud ‘I’m on a train’ conversations – or mobiles ringing in cinemas and theatres – may eventually become as unacceptable as queue jumping, but we cannot yet be certain, particularly given English inhibitions about confronting offenders. Inappropriate mobile-phone use on trains and in other public places is at least a social issue of which everyone is now aware. But there are other aspects of ‘emerging’ mobile-phone etiquette that are even more blurred and controversial.

There are, for example, as yet no agreed rules of etiquette on the use of mobile phones during business meetings. Do you switch your phone off, discreetly, before entering the meeting? Or do you take your phone out and make a big ostentatious show of switching it off, as a flattering gesture conveying the message ‘See how important you are: I am switching off my phone for you’? Then do you place your switched-off phone on the table as a reminder of your courtesy and your client’s or colleague’s status? If you keep it switched on, do you do so overtly or leave it in your briefcase? Do you take calls during the meeting? My preliminary observations indicate that lower-ranking English executives tend to be less courteous, attempting to trumpet their own importance by keeping phones on and taking calls during meetings, while high-ranking people with nothing to prove tend to be more considerate.

Then what about lunch? Is it acceptable to switch your phone back on during the business lunch? Do you need to give a reason? Apologize? Again, my initial observations and interviews suggest a similar pattern. Low- status, insecure people tend to take and even sometimes make calls during a business lunch – often apologizing and giving reasons, but in such a self-important ‘I’m so busy and indispensable’ manner that their ‘apology’ is really a disguised boast. Their higher-ranking, more secure colleagues either leave their phones switched off or, if they absolutely must keep them on for some reason, apologize in a genuine and often embarrassed, self- deprecating manner.

There are many other, much more subtle social uses of mobile phones, some of which do not even involve talking on the phone at all – such as the competitive use of the mobile phone itself as a status-signal, particularly among teenagers, but also in some cases replacing the car as a medium for macho ‘mine’s better than yours’ displays among older males, with discussions of the relative merits of different brands, networks and features taking the place of more traditional conversations about alloy wheels, nought-to-sixty, BHP, etc.

I have also noticed that many women now use their mobiles as ‘barrier signals’ when on their own in coffee bars and other public places, as an alternative to the traditional use of a newspaper or magazine to signal unavailability and mark personal ‘territory’. Even when not in use, the mobile placed on the table acts as an effective symbolic bodyguard, a protector against unwanted social contact: women will touch the phone or pick it up when a potential ‘intruder’ approaches. One woman explained: ‘You just feel safer if it’s there – just on the table, next to your hand . . . Actually it’s better than a newspaper because it’s real people – I mean, there are real people in there you could call or text if you wanted, you know? It’s sort of reassuring.’ The idea of one’s social support network of friends and family being somehow ‘inside’ the mobile phone means that even just touching or holding the phone gives a sense of being protected – and sends a signal to others that one is not alone and vulnerable.
"Most of us no longer enjoy the cosiness of a gossip over the garden fence." Kate Fox
This example provides an indication of the more important social functions of the mobile phone. I’ve written about this issue at great length elsewhere, but it is worth explaining briefly here. The mobile phone has, I believe, become the modern equivalent of the garden fence or village green. The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of preindustrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent ‘grooming talk’ with a tightly integrated social network of family and friends. 

In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Most of us no longer enjoy the cosiness of a gossip over the garden fence. We may not even know our neighbours’ names, and communication is often limited to a brief, slightly embarrassed nod, if that. Families and friends are scattered, and even if our relatives or friends live nearby, we are often too busy or too tired to visit. We are constantly on the move, spending much of our time commuting to and from work either among strangers on trains and buses, or alone and isolated in our cars. These factors are particularly problematic for the English, as we tend to be more reserved and socially inhibited than other cultures; we do not talk to strangers, or make friends quickly and easily.

Landline telephones allowed us to communicate, but not in the sort of frequent, easy, spontaneous, casual style that would have characterised the small communities for which we are adapted by evolution, and in which most of us lived in pre-industrial times. Mobile phones – particularly the ability to send short, frequent, cheap text messages – restore our sense of connection and community, and provide an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern urban life. They are a kind of ‘social lifeline’ in a fragmented and isolating world.

Think about a typical, brief ‘village-green’ conversation: ‘Hi, how’re you doing?’ ‘Fine, just off to the shops – oh, how’s your Mum?’ ‘Much better, thanks’ ‘Oh, good, give her my love – see you later’. If you take most of the vowels out of the village-green conversation, and scramble the rest of the letters into ‘text-message dialect’ (HOW R U? C U L8ER), to me it sounds uncannily like a typical SMS or text exchange: not much is said – a friendly greeting, maybe a scrap of news – but a personal connection is made, people are reminded that they are not alone. Until the advent of mobile text messaging, many of us were having to live without this kind of small but psychologically and socially very important form of communication.

But this new form of communication requires a new set of unspoken rules, and the negotiations over the formation of these rules are currently causing a certain amount of tension and conflict – particularly the issue of whether mobile text is an appropriate medium for certain types of conversation. Chatting someone up, flirting by text is accepted, even encouraged, but some women complain that men use texting as a way of avoiding talking. ‘Dumping’ someone by text-message is widely regarded as cowardly and absolutely unacceptable, but this rule has not yet become firmly established enough to prevent some people from ending relationships in this manner."

From the book "Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour" 2004, by Kate Fox. A social anthropologist and co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre