As Miss Manners eloquently states, the technology has changed, but the rules remain the same.
Yet, one step outside to anywhere resembling a public space and it seems we are all in a constant state of confusion as to what the rules of social etiquette are and how on earth we abide by them.
There are countless studies that discuss the role that technology has played and is playing in public spaces. However for the most part, these studies are situated in America. Nevertheless, due to the current state of our society being increasingly globalized, American society and Australian society are highly comparable.
Tali Hatuka who head the Laboratory for Contemporary Urban Design at Tel Aviv University believes that basic ideas that are associated with public space are being altered by individuals when smart phones are involved.
This directly relates to the growing confusion regarding social etiquette and technology as people believe that as they move through communal spaces, they still have their privacy through their “portable private personal territories“.
It has become clear to me that researchers are not the only people concerned with how technology is affecting social etiquette in public spaces after a conversation with my mum, Liz.
Today my Mum told me about a recent altercation that she had had at lunchtime in North Sydney. There was a huge amount of foot traffic in Grennwood Mall, it being lunchtime, and a man that was taller than her and looking at his phone walked straight into her.
Being completely fed up with this sort of thing happening Mum snapped and said, “could you get off your phone?” to which the man replied “could you mind your own business?”
I found this astounding on so many levels. Firstly, when did bumping into someone create such aggressive reactions as opposed to the usual mumbled apology, yet apology nevertheless. Secondly, when did bumping into someone after being on your phone become a matter of that person having to mind their own business?
Mum described it as, “phone rage”.
Through the proliferation of mobile devices, we have become slaves to these devices and their incessant demands. Regardless of the public or private space which we may find ourselves in.
Subsequently, this blurring of the public and private dichotomy is resulting in societal confusion concerning basic behavioural conventions.
As we become more and more inward focused due to our mobile devices it is clear that we are losing so many things that are in turn contributing to this breakdown in understanding social responsibilities.
Another story that Mum shared with me was relating to the loss of ‘stranger communication’ which relates to talking to strangers in public places. In this instance, Mum had seen a lady in the street and she had been attracted to her outfit and Mum decided to let her know. When telling me this story, Mum also added that this woman was clearly in a huge rush but regardless Mum stopped her anyway and gave her the compliment.
The lady stopped dead in her tracks and her reaction time in responding to Mum was awkwardly slow. Whilst there was a genuine thanks at the end of this transaction it is the reaction time that is of concern.
It is like recently when someone asked me for directions whilst I had my headphones on. I was immediately sent into a spin as I had a) forgotten that I was in a public space as I was so focused on the music in my ears and the direction that I was going and b) I couldn’t believe that an actual real life stranger was talking to me as it so rarely happens these days.
Our mobile devices have everything we ever need to get by in every day life and so we no longer have the need for stranger conversation. When it happens in this day and age we are hugely put out. Scientifically speaking, stranger communication directly correlates with increasing individuals capacity to empathise with others. When this skill is not used, it deteriorates and we forget how to do it.
Mum has had a similar experience with headphones in the work place which is interesting as it exists as a semi-public space. Mum works for the Australian Catholic University and she works in a largely open plan environment. Mum believes that the use of headphones in this work space is working against the aims of an open plan work space.
This example is interesting as headphones are something that are used when there is no one around. Putting headphones in your ears when in the company of others is, I can confidently say, considered rude.
I would think that this transfers into the workplace however Mum says that this practice is becoming increasingly popular!
These are only a few examples of the countless ways that people using technology affects the use of public space. In a Study conducted by Pew Research Center called Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette, they measured the different reasons that people are using social media in public spaces.
The results of this graph clearly show that people are using their mobile devices for a broad range of reasons in public spaces and this begs the question as to which ‘code of practice’, per se, do they follow?
Do they respond to the people that are communicating with them through their devices or do they prioritise the physical world in front of them?
Regardless of what should be done in this situation I believe that all too often, people are choosing to follow cyber etiquette as opposed to the etiquette of their physical reality.
When I spoke to Mum about this theory of mine, she somewhat timidly agreed.
“There is something about technology that is so distracting and consuming.”
The ability that technology has to consume our attention is reshaping our informal personal reactions…
Mum explained that it has become so hard to ignore your phone. “These days” she said, “it has become the norm that when you are speaking to someone in the flesh, and your phone rings more than once that you excuse yourself from the conversation in order to answer your ringing phone”.
When you actually think about this by normal standards of etiquette, this seems inexcusably rude and yet this is becoming more and more like the norm.
With all these examples I believe the question of whether technology is eroding our awareness of social etiquette is one of extreme complexity.
In some regards I believe that, yes, technology and our mobile devices are to some extent encouraging inward focused behaviour at the detriment of greater societal values and civil responsibilities.
However, in the flip side of this, people are not becoming less kind, but in many ways are developing new rules to govern etiquette in a technology revolution.
All in all I think I agree with Miss Manners, I think the rules that are in place to govern any societal changes and we don’t need new ones.