The decline of manners in modern society seems to be a topic of much discussion. Typing the phrase “modern manners” into any search engine yields numerous results, with pages of articles and blog posts lamenting how rude and lacking in basic manners people are today, along with predictions of the total collapse of civilization because many people no longer follow etiquette rules established in the past. While an argument can be made that modern technology makes people more alienated from face-to-face contact and encourages isolation, technology and the realities of modern life have required etiquette to adapt. In many ways, manners are not really declining; they are simply evolving at the same fast pace that technology is changing the way humans interact with each other.
In Sherry Turkle’s article “Can You Hear Me Now,” she addresses one problem common to many business meetings and presentations: attendees do not pay attention to the meeting or presentation, instead using the time to check their email, text messages, and so forth. She describes a conference she recently attended: “But the audience is not listening. Most seem to be doing their e-mail, downloading files, surfing the Web or looking for a cartoon to illustrate an upcoming presentation” (Turkle, para. 1). In considering this issue, the term “attendee” is significant; the people are now much more attendees than participants. They feign interest in the meeting or speaker periodically, so as to give the appearance of paying attention, but in actuality they focus on the information they are sending and receiving with their electronic devices. Turkle describes this situation as if it is a new phenomenon, one resulting from the new technology of mobile phones and other personal data devices.
Almost anyone who has attended a business meeting in the last five to ten years can affirm that this behavior can be pervasive. Most employees have sat through meetings where colleagues surreptitiously or openly check their email on their cell phones. I can personally attest to how widespread this issue is. In my own workplace, conference rooms now have rules posted that include admonitions to silence cell phones and to put them away during meetings. Another example that shows how this behavior takes place not only in the workplace but in other settings comes from movie theaters. Because of many complaints by patrons about audience members talking on their cell phones while movies were showing, most movie theaters now show at least two, sometimes more, full-screen reminders to the audience to silence their cell phones.
Despite this evidence, it would be a mistake to assume that people suddenly quit paying attention in meetings and presentations solely because of the invention of cell phones and other personal data devices. Almost anyone can recall sitting in a class during school, listening to an instructor drone on about a subject that in no way interested most of the students, and pretending to pay attention while actually daydreaming, doodling in a notebook, or writing notes. As adults, that same reaction occurs in the workplace. For anyone who has been in the workplace, consider this question: Before cell phones were available, did you pay rapt attention during every work meeting you attended and every presentation you attended? Or did you find that during boring meetings and presentations, especially the ones where you quickly recognized nothing interesting or productive would happen or be said, you mentally zoned out the same way you did in school?
Common sense dictates that if people need to pay attention during a meeting or presentation because the information is vital, those people will in fact pay attention rather than ignoring the content of the meeting in order to check their email. All too many meetings and presentations can be summed up in a page or two of notes or a few PowerPoint slides; in those cases, does it really matter if people pay attention to the speaker when the summary will be available electronically shortly after the meeting? In a meeting where 90% of the attendees are busy checking their email instead of listening to the speaker and participating in the discussion, the critical issue is not really modern manners; it is why people who neither need nor want to be at the meeting are required to be there.
In reflecting on the issue, what seems apparent is that people are not being any ruder at meetings than they used to be; what has changed is that their use of available technology makes their “rudeness” more easily discernible by others. At a meeting or presentation in the year 1963, many people could be sitting around the conference table daydreaming and most other attendees would not notice; however, set that meeting in 2013 with a roomful of several people who are texting, checking emails, or surfing the internet, and their lack of interest in the meeting becomes apparent to everybody else. The reality of the situation—that many attendees are not actually paying attention to the speaker—has not changed, but the reality has become apparent to everybody. Somehow, people interpret this reality to be “rude” or that people are behaving badly. In this case, modern technology enables people who would otherwise simply be wasting time desperately wishing they were doing something else to engage in activities they deem productive. Although one could argue that the time they might spend daydreaming is necessary for creativity or good mental health, they can daydream while they are in their own office, staring at their computer screens, pretending to work.
As society changes and technologies evolve, manners will undoubtedly change as well. These changes are documented in various etiquette books, which themselves have been updated to reflect modern sensibilities. As noted in a discussion of how etiquette books have changed to reflect changes in manners, “The 17th edition of Etiquette, published in 2004, reflects today’s social issues: e-mail, cell phones, piercings, tattoos, and the “encore wedding” and it includes a multicultural list of holidays and wedding advice. As society changes, successful etiquette books adapt” (Battistella 365). Nevertheless, the 2004 edition of Etiquette explains that good manners, irrespective of what time period people live in, contain the elements of “respect, consideration, and honesty” (Battistella 365). Given this point of departure for what good manners exemplify, another examination of the workplace meeting may be useful. Is using a cell phone during a meeting actually rude? Or does it represent the user’s attempt to convey honesty, that the meeting is of no interest to the user? If so, is there a more considerate way to convey this honesty to the speaker? Schindler offers a similar situation when she asks, “If someone enters your office while you’re playing music on your iPod, do you turn it off, or do you pull the headphones off your ears? I’ll bet that it’s at least the latter, if the person who comes into your cubicle is your boss. But you might leave the device on and running, as a subtle hint, if you intend to keep the conversation short” (12).
There are no easy answers to these questions, but perhaps when people consider the pervasiveness of attendees using their cell phones during meetings, the reaction should be less one of outrage at the perceived rudeness of the behavior and more one of asking difficult questions about whether some of these meetings are necessary, or what purpose is served by requiring employees to attend meetings where they essentially function only as warm bodies filling a seat, or if the speaker can do something to make the meeting more interesting. Consider the example that Turkle mentioned of conference attendees going to the expense of flying to a foreign city, paying for a hotel room, and sitting in a meeting room using their laptops or tablets instead of listening to or watching the presentation. The purpose of disseminating information about the topic could have been achieved at much less expense using virtual meeting software, such as WebEx, which has the advantage that those who choose to participate in real time can do so, and those who wish to view the meeting after the fact can do so by watching the recording of the meeting. Is it rude to pay no attention or only token attention to a presenter at a conference, and is it equally or more rude to require people to spend large amounts of money to attend a conference in person when the information can be distributed electronically much more cheaply? Although obviously there are situations in which someone’s behavior with a modern technological device is undoubtedly rude, in some situations ambiguity and a perception of rudeness make the issue a little less clear. As new technology becomes increasingly used by most members of society, those same people will eventually reach a new consensus on what is rude and what is acceptable behavior.
Battistella, Edwin L. “The Yardstick of Manners.” Society 46.4 (2009): 363-7. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.
Schindler, Esther. “A Manner of Speaking.” networker 8.4 (2004): 11-14. Web. 20 Jan. 2013. DOI 10.1145/1037911.1037919
Turkle, Sherry. “Can You Hear Me Now?” Forbes.com. (05.07.2007). Web. 20 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2007/0507/176.html