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21st Century Etiquette

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:59 UK time, Monday, 3 October 2011

There's no subtle way to write this so I'm just going to come out with it: technology is making us rude.

I know I'm not the only one to have sat in a pub with friends only to see several of them getting out their phones to check their social networks. I, admittedly, am one of those friends and it's becoming a bad habit. Yet unless I'm in the middle of a conversation, no one seems to think it rude and, according to a report by Ofcom in August, I'm part of the 51% of adult smartphone users who use their phone while out socialising. It seems impolite, but then years ago the same might have been said of phones at the dinner table - answered or not.

Now though, even the Emily Post etiquette foundation, which promotes the values of the 20th century American expert, deems it perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself from the table to take a call.

Manners have always changed, but the internet has sparked a dramatic cultural shift in acceptable social behaviour. The mobile, with its bigger screen and data service, is now the television in the room. It doesn't matter if it's the football or CBeebies that's on, somehow we're just drawn to screens, and with flashy portable ones simply aching to give us information, checking our phones is becoming an addiction. The Debrett's Netiquette guide stresses that technology is a way of enhancing your life, not a substitute for living, yet just a day without a phone or the internet can leave the heaviest users twitching with the fear that they're missing out.

To my shame, my phone is the first thing I see in the morning - and not just to switch the alarm off. Ofcom tells me I'm not alone in this as 38% of smartphone-using adults do the same. Each morning several minutes go by as I run through my emails and social networks before finally turning my head to my partner, only to see he's doing the same. Most etiquette guides will tell you that how you use technology when in company all depends on how it affects those around you. So, although it may seem worryingly addictive behaviour, it's not necessarily rude. Perhaps it's just a sign of the times - or maybe I need a single-purpose alarm clock.

It seems the pressure of politeness has now transferred to the person being interrupted by technology as they sympathetically say 'no, go ahead' when their companion needs to send a text or reply to an important email about which lawnmower to buy. Immediate communication has become so expected that there's an understanding that the person on the other end of the line simply can't be kept waiting. Whether we're at work, with friends, or brushing our teeth, we've ramped up the pace of communication to the point that we feel we're being rude by not replying to someone instantly.

For all the loud personal phone calls on trains that disturb strangers and the social media addiction when in company, it's that staple of modern technology, the humble email, that can cause the most problems through miscommunication, misunderstanding and altogether avoiding the good old fashioned spoken word.

Several months ago, the case of the woman who emailed her son's fiancée her grievances over manners garnered column inches and the opinions of many an etiquette expert. But what was agreed upon by most was that sending an email rather than talking was in fact the rudest thing of all.

Polite, professional emails are the lifeblood of good businesses. They help you organise get-togethers, send links or catch up with overseas friends, but they are not the way to tell someone you're annoyed with them.

For some, emails have become no more than an electronic diary, used to scrawl down one's entire thoughts and, thinking that everything makes perfect sense, pressing 'send' without a thought of the possible consequences. For this reason the medium is increasingly finding its way to the epicentre of the family row, where each party struggles to understand the sender's exact meaning amongst the mental regurgitation that rests on the screen.

A word of advice: if, like the would-be-mother-in-law, you feel the need to tell someone just what you think of them, have the courtesy to say it to their face, or, if you simply have to get it down in an email, remember that the 'save to drafts' button is your friend. Save it, sleep on it, read it back with a fresh perspective, and delete. Then pick up the phone and have a conversation. But not on the train.


Read Hajar's account of her own mobile adventures on a train.



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