This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 19, 2008, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Although I'm not really a stickler for following Emily Post, to me, some good manners are very important, because they are an expression of human decency. I'm reminded of this when I have both hands full and someone entering a building ahead of me slams the door in my face. However, in recent years, the most blatant expression of bad manners I see is people with cell phones. I can live with such things as guys coming in the house and not taking off their hats or caps, because it doesn't affect me in any way, and is no invasion of my rights as a human being. But certain kinds of cell phone behavior borders on interference with my rights as a human being. When do your rights as a human being interfere with my rights?
Cell phone bad manners are a problem for two reasons. One, the use of cell phones in public is often an affront to those of us who are forced to be a part of the experience. And, two, excessive use of your cell phone can isolate you from reality, and keep you transported on tower beams, like a detached body-less cyborg in cyberspace. "Earth to cyborg." The second reason, I suppose, is really none of my business, but I wanted to mention it anyway.
Let me give you an extreme example of what I'm talking about with regard to the first reason. A woman drove up to the Post Office, talking on her cell phone, and continued talking as she went inside. I went inside and said "hello" to her and she gave me an angry look. As I got the mail out of my box, I had to listen to her one-sided conversation, because she spoke in a very loud voice. I left and went to the grocery store. She drove up in front of the super market, still talking on the phone, got out, went in, still jawing. I can tell you from what I was forced to hear that it was an extremely trivial phone conversation – it was certainly not an emergency.
I got my groceries, and would you believe, I ended up behind her at the checkout counter, and would you believe that she was still going ninety to nothing on the phone, and forcing those of us behind her and in front of her to listen to banter so trivial it was painful? She continued talking on the way to her car, and was still chatting away as she drove off. Is she living in reality, or in cyberspace? Where is the human decency in forcing others to listen to your phone conversation? Isn't that bad manners? Isn't it similar to being forced to have your ears bombarded with a jarring boom box in the parking lot? In the days of yore we controlled our own actions because we respected other people. Have we become a self-centered race of detached, inconsiderate people?
I think such an example of poor manners deserves criticism, because it is an invasion of other persons' rights.
Let me share another example. I'm in the waiting room, waiting to see the doctor. There are other patients waiting also, all of us with looks of anxiety on our faces, some of us praying silently for good news from our test results, some reading. Again, it was a young woman (and I'm not picking on women) with a very loud voice. It was very embarrassing for me to hear some of the personal things she was saying on her cell phone. Without earplugs, you can't not listen to her. Do I get up and go outside? But then how would I know when it was my turn to go in? 'Why doesn't she go outside?' I thought. My hunch was that she was too self-focused and thoughtless to consider the anxious feelings of other human beings who did not deserve to have to listen to all of this "He said, she said, they said" babble as we waited to see the doctor.
Usually when my wife and I go into a restaurant that allows smoking, we look around to see where there are folks smoking, and we ask to be seated on the opposite side of the room. One Sunday at noon, we went into a restaurant we like, and my wife headed us toward a booth in the far corner of the room. I stopped her and asked the waiter to seat us a good distance from that corner of the room. What my wife didn't see was that a woman (yes, again, it was a woman, not the man with her) was talking on her cell phone, and I didn't want to have to listen to her. My wife's response was that the lady probably wouldn't be talking for long on her phone. We ordered. We ate. We left. The lady was still talking on her cell phone. But, thank goodness, because we were seated far enough away, we didn't have to hear a word of anything she said!
Emily Post wrote the first book on proper etiquette long before cell phones were invented. First published in 1922, it was followed by ten editions; however Emily died in 1960. She also wrote a newspaper column about good manners. I think it's time for someone to come up with a code of etiquette for cell phone use and have it printed as a book. The only problem is that it's likely very few would read it. I certainly would!
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.