Last June, Kevin Newman delivered the commencement address at the University of Western Ontario. Reading from his iPad, the veteran TV news journalist extolled social media’s increasing role in shaping global events—and how it’s destined to make the graduating class “the most consequential generation in more than a century.”
Afterwards, the 52-year-old, who received an honorary doctorate at the ceremony, took his seat on the dais and began typing into his iPhone. Once, in the paleolithic pre-Facebook era, a guest of honour displaying such distracted behaviour would have summoned dismayed cocked eyebrows. But if the university’s robed dignitaries were offended, they showed no sign. Nor did the graduates facing the stage, many of whom were quietly typing away on mobile devices themselves.
Newman, CTV’s newly appointed “digital news evangelist,” says he sees the tableau as the way of the world: “That’s how I live my life now. I capture moments and experiences,” he told Maclean’s. His behaviour was “within the boundaries of etiquette in a social-media age,” he says, admitting that these rules are being established on the run, often by the user himself (Newman only posted photos to his Twitter feed from backstage, didn’t text during the formal part of the ceremony, and says he wasn’t “too showy” about it).
Not everyone agrees. Pamela Eyring, director of the Protocol School of Washington, which teaches social manners to corporate and government clients, views public texting at an official event as “rude, period.” “It isn’t professional. It’s saying, ‘To hell with all of you,’ ” she says. “The guest of honour has a responsibility to be present in the moment.”
Not that she’s surprised. PDA preoccupation is so endemic that Eyring has identified the “four stages of BlackBerry abandonment”: confusion (“Why aren’t they listening?”), discomfort, irritation, and then, if texting continues, outrage (“You lean back, and you just stare”). She hides her own iPhone from sight in restaurants and at meetings to avoid being distracted by it.
“It’s an addiction,” she says, one that puts “personal and business relationships, both of which rely on making others feel valued, at risk.” (In a recent survey by dating site Zoosk, a third of singles said they’d left a date early because the other person was “constantly glancing” at their cell.) The consequences are dire, Eyring says: “We’re losing our one-on-one people skills and ability to engage in uninterrupted, focused conversations.”
Electronic gadgetry upends traditional rules of etiquette in paradoxical ways: it connects far-flung virtual communities and irritates the person standing next to you. And there are no accepted standards, as revealed in a 2009 City University of New York study of 57 people. In “Social networking obliterates etiquette: thumbs drum in rise of multi-tasking rudeness,” 68 per cent of those surveyed thought it was disrespectful to conduct a real-time conversation while texting someone else; 32 per cent didn’t. And 61 per cent said it was impolite to send a thank-you note via email; 18 per cent said it was fine, with the rest saying it depended on circumstances. Unsurprisingly, research reveals the younger you are, the more tolerant you’ll be about electronic distraction. A recent survey by consumer electronic site Retrevo found 10 per cent of people under age 25 didn’t see anything wrong with texting during sex.
Eyring expresses surprise that “cell-fishness,” as it has been dubbed, has gotten so much worse, given how high awareness is. In 2007, Kevin Spacey became a cultural hero when he yelled out, “Tell them we’re busy,” when a cellphone rang during a London performance of The Iceman Cometh. Yet in May, at a climactic plot point of Good People on Broadway, a cellphone rang and the owner actually answered it, forcing star Frances McDormand to tell her co-star, “Let’s wait.”
It’s not only the distracting glow of PDA screens in theatres, it’s loud cellphone conversations in elevators, narcissistic multi-taskers holding up lineups, diners Instagraming their entrees, dinner companions obsessively checking messages as if waiting to perform an organ transplant, and gallery-goers so intent on capturing a reproduction of a famous artwork they don’t even look at the original.
Cellphone-related rudeness is so bad it’s treated like a disease requiring awareness (July is National Cellphone Courtesy month in the U.S.) and policing (in July, an Ontario Provincial Police campaign targeted distracted drivers, charging more than 2,000 people, with one woman so preoccupied with her cell she didn’t even notice the sirens flagging her down).
It isn’t the first time hands have been wrung over new technology undermining civility. In America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940, Claude S. Fischer writes that “hello” was once considered an “undignified” greeting and that etiquette primers railed against issuing invitations over the phone. AT&T even proposed a telephone pledge: “I believe in the Golden Rule and will try to be as Considerate and Courteous over the telephone as if Face to Face.”
But the ability to communicate with one person while face to face with someone else presents fresh social conundrums. Tweeting from a funeral, for instance, once would have been viewed as sacrilegious, yet the Twitter feed from Jack Layton’s state funeral was regarded as a connective bond. Technology itself can provoke perceived rudeness, be it by fostering self-importance, encouraging abrupt emails fired off with a quick click, or eliciting fury after realizing a BlackBerry IM hasn’t merited a response even though the message has been opened. Jessica Johnson, who works in creative direction at the Bay, is an iPhone user who blames that device’s celebrated cool design for inviting anti-social behaviour under the guise of self-expression. “It turned formerly nice, sensitive, creative types into assholes,” she says. “And now everybody has them.”
People are so preoccupied, they’re oblivious to how they’re coming across—a point famously illustrated on a 2009 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm when Larry David’s character becomes annoyed by a solo diner at the next table yelling into a headset. He retaliates by shouting across the table at an imaginary companion. The scene was played for laughs, but David’s irritation wasn’t irrational, according to 2010 research from Cornell University in Psychological Science that found listening to a cellphone conversation—a “half-alogue”—is far more intrusive than overhearing a two-way conversation. When forced to listen to a half-alogue, subjects’ ability to perform computer tasks was greatly reduced; two-way talk didn’t have the same effect.
“Our brain is hard-wired to pay attention to the unpredictable,” says Lauren Emberson, the Toronto-born psychologist who conducted the study. “When we don’t know what is being said on the other end of the conversation, it’s distracting because we’re trying to predict what the person is saying.”
Emberson, who’s researching whether drivers listening to one-sided conversations are equally distracted, has changed her cellphone habits: “I realized you’re impinging on people around you far more than with other types of speech.” She’s also newly sensitive to how readily people discuss intimate topics loudly in public on cellphones. “But when you’re discussing private topics in person, there’s a tendency to talk more quietly.”
Polls suggest a backlash is brewing: last year, a Zagat restaurant guide poll found 63 per cent frowned on texting, checking email or talking on the phone in a restaurant, though it’s not clear whether they’re referring to themselves, or others. A U.K. survey for tech giant Intel Corp. released in July was more blunt: most people said they’d rather see someone pick their nose than use a mobile device in front of them.
“People are fed up,” says Eyring, noting that “no cellphones” is the new “no smoking,” with drive-through pharmacies and fast-food outlets in the U.S. starting to refuse to serve digital multi-taskers. Even restaurants catering to the BlackBerry-bound business class are setting boundaries. Last month, Washington culinary mecca Rogue 24 made headlines when it asked diners to sign a contract prohibiting the use of phones and cameras during meals. New York City hot spot Momofuku Ko discourages cellphone use and prohibits photos. Celebrated New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer posts signs at his properties asking that patrons not use their cellphones “in consideration of our guests.” Still, that doesn’t stop people, says a hostess at Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, who reports they routinely ask people to take loud cell conversations outside.
Eyring says she has no qualms about asking guests to turn off their phones at a private dinner party, “but I’ll try to do it with humour.” Then there’s the “if you can’t beat ’em, control ’em with digital segregation” approach: in July, Vancouver’s Upintheair Theatre had a section of the balcony reserved for people to blog and tweet at its “Neanderthal Festival”— provided the volume was off and people didn’t talk. Co-artistic director Dave Mott says light from the mobile devices didn’t disturb those in the non-tweeting section. “We’re trying to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable for electronic devices in a live performance,” he says. If by pushing the boundaries he means ensuring ringers are off, it’s a start.