Mind Your Digital Manners, Please!

In a way, being polite boils down to the ability to pay attention and to communicate. Advances in electronic technology have given us unlimited new ways to pay attention and infinite new means to communicate. So why does it all seem so rude?

Pay attention! When you’re fooling with your smartphone while we’re supposed to be talking, I get hurt feelings. It’s like — and I remember this too well from high school — going to the drive-in and kissing your date and realizing she has her eyes wide open and she’s watching the movie.

No, I’m not asking you out. I’m just trying to communicate. Although, that said, if you’re breaking into my Web searches every two minutes with instant messaging, what you’re communicating is that you’re a pain in the ass.

Etiquette is about human interaction — the source of all good things and also the source of everything that drives us nuts. What’s rude about technology is that human interaction now takes place instantaneously. It used to require days, even months, to be driven nuts by a lousy boss, a crazy co-worker, a boring client or an unbearable competitor. Today, they do it in a nanosecond by clicking “reply all.”Technology creates whole new categories of bad manners. Imagine, 20 years ago, being caught twiddling your thumbs in a business meeting. Why does an expensive little gadget with buttons make it O.K.?

The cellphone is still the worst. Some people stop everything to answer their phones, as if they’re 911 and every caller is being murdered while I’m a kitten up a tree. Others just let their phones ring, glancing at the LED displays and saying, “I’ll get that later.” Setting phones to vibrate doesn’t work either, if the vibration is so strong that everyone thinks it’s the next Fukushima earthquake. And why is all cellphone talking done at the same volume used by dads urging their Little Leaguers to steal third? I’ve been overhearing cellphone calls forever and have yet to hear anything worth shouting, like, “Sell the Lehman Brothers stock!”

Also, if I’m on the cellphone, the last thing I want to hear during the conversation is a flush. In the early days of cellphones, I was in the men’s room at LaGuardia and from three stalls down I heard, “I love you.” I hope he was alone in there.

Or maybe e-mail is even more obnoxious than a cellphone, which can be snatched from someone’s hand and thrown out a window. The computer itself is rude. Staying properly hydrated is, after all, more crucial to my health than reading e-mails, but when I open the refrigerator, it doesn’t chirp, “You’ve got beer!”

People expect immediate responses to e-mail messages. Letters are often of greater importance than e-mails, but we don’t make the postman wait while we scribble a reply and then tell him, “Go straight to 358 Madison Avenue, Suite 401.”

The purpose of e-mail — like the purpose of blogging — seems to be to let people dump the contents of their minds. I’m not a human USB flash drive. And it’s amazing how often the content of a mind is the same dirty joke that the last e-mailer’s mind contained.

It’s the league of evil office equipment. The photocopier was the original villain in the plot to waste everybody’s time. Back when dinosaurs and L.B.J. roamed the earth, I had a summer job in the mailroom of a big corporation. One of our responsibilities was to mimeograph corporate memos (people under 40, Google “mimeograph”). The executives’ secretaries (people under 40, Google “secretary”) hated cutting mimeo stencils on their typewriters (people under 40, see above). We mailboys hated running the mimeograph machine because we were required to wear white shirts to work. Mimeo-ink colored shirts were not acceptable. The result was that no corporate memos were sent. Instead, the executives went down the hall, knocked politely on office doors, and said, “The Bartworth deal stinks.” Such efficiency was the reason that big corporations used to stay in business for decade after decade.

Speaking of wasting time, if it’s simple enough to be explained by PowerPoint, it isn’t complex enough to use PowerPoint to explain it.

Tweeting is just a way of speaking before you think. We all do that with our spouses, and we know how that turns out. Now we’re doing it with everyone. One careless remark about sovereign debt, and we get the silent treatment from the whole European Union. And the average Facebook posting is one step above writing a phone number on a public restroom wall.

Not that every electronic rudeness is intentional. These days, in conferences, committees and board meetings, each participant has his or her smartphone out. Suddenly, everybody’s an expert.

Should we maintain a short sell position in magnesium futures? People who knew the most about the commodities market used to do the talking. Now it’s opinion mob rule.

“According to Wikipedia, there’s an almost unlimited supply of magnesium in seawater. Maybe we should short the Bay of Fundy.”

“Look at the prices on these mag wheels for my ’Vette!”

“We’re reaching the peak years for the indigestion demographic. Milk of Magnesia sales will skyrocket.”

“It’s a key ingredient in aluminum alloys, and aluminum screen door sales have plunged drastically since the housing boom collapsed.”

Meanwhile, magnesium goes to $5,000 per metric ton and a fortune is lost.

Thanks to technology, we’re continually being interrupted. We even interrupt ourselves. Does Tiger Woods pause to text in the middle of his backswing? Maybe that explains the way Tiger has been playing.

The most polite existence wouldn’t have technology in it at all. I speak from experience. The most courteous presence in my life (and the one with whom it is easiest to make deals) has no phone of any kind, no iPad, no Web site and no e-mail address. This is my Labrador retriever, Georgie. She communicates with a couple of barks, a few whines and an occasional growl. And she usually gets her way. When she’s really driving a hard bargain, she wags her tail and rests her muzzle on my knee. I’m not suggesting that business executives start wagging their tails and resting their muzzles on the knees of stockholders, investment bankers and federal regulators. This could be misinterpreted. But it wouldn’t be as rude as some of the … Whoa! Former Congressman Anthony Weiner is back on Twitter!

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P.J. O’Rourke is a political satirist, humorist and author of many books including “Don’t Vote, It Just Encourages the Bastards,” “Eat the Rich,” and “Parliament of Whores.” He was foreign editor of Rolling Stone magazine and is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly.

Authors

  • P.J. O'Rourke

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute