From the October 2016 issue of The Rotarian
I was having breakfast in my local diner the morning after the Oscars when I happened to mention how surprised I was that Spotlight …
I did not get to finish the sentence.
“Don’t tell me who won,” said a regular at the table, frantically waving his hands. “I recorded it, but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.”
The response was immediate.
“Too bad!” said one of the other members of the breakfast club.
“Tough break,” said another.
“Nice try,” chimed in a third.
“Spoiler alerts don’t apply to the Oscars,” said a fourth. “If you didn’t see the show in real time, too bad.”
“As I was saying,” I continued, “I was pleasantly surprised to see Spotlight win the Oscar for best picture.”
And the conversation went on from there.
Similarly, no one has the right to say, “Don’t tell me how the Super Bowl ended!” or “Don’t wreck the World Series for me; I still haven’t seen game three.” If you haven’t seen the Super Bowl or the World Series in real time, that’s your problem.
If a spoiler alert is meant to avoid diminishing your enjoyment of, say, a movie, I can respect that, at least in the abstract. However, once I’ve plunked down my 10 bucks to watch Ben Affleck stink up the joint as Batman, I believe I have the obligation to explain, in detail, everything I found wrong with Batman v Superman. I don’t need to wait until everyone on the planet has seen Batman v Superman to start complaining that the plot is moronic, that Affleck looks puffy, and that Wonder Woman is not onscreen nearly enough. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I didn’t spoil it for you; I shielded you from it.
People who record TV shows and sporting events may feel there is an obligation to refrain from revealing how the movie, show, ballgame, election, marriage, or war turned out. But there isn’t. The rest of us have the right to live in a contemporaneous world. If you haven’t seen that grizzly bear go to town on Leonardo DiCaprio by the time the Academy Awards roll around, tough. What was so important that you couldn’t see The Revenant?
Also, consider the tyranny of email. There is no unwritten law dictating that I have to read your email or respond to it within minutes of your sending it. Unless you are my employer, child, spouse, or proctologist, there is no obligation on my part to respond to your email ever.
Similarly, there is no law saying that I have to listen to messages you leave on my phone. If you have children under age 35, you already know that young people never, ever listen to phone messages. They see that you have called, and they call you back. They believe that if the message were really important, you would have texted them. Since refusal to listen to phone messages is the new norm, you should not be surprised when you leave me a 10-minute message describing Andrea Bocelli in concert and I ignore it.
For better or worse, the smartphone dominates life in a way landlines never did. Enormous portions of our day are devoted to calling, texting, posting, sending photos, watching videos, checking scores, seeking directions, or consulting Wikipedia to settle arguments such as why Chicago is called the Windy City. But smartphones have necessitated a slew of exceptions to what otherwise might be considerate behavior.
Social niceties are the CliffsNotes of politeness. Being polite is not an affectation. It is the civilized recognition of the presence of others. But the behavior we associate with good manners can ossify and become meaningless – even oppressive. As we have seen, some social niceties have a freshness date that not everyone is able to discern. No, you still have to write thank you notes and let your companion precede you to the restaurant table. But when social niceties infringe on reasonable individual rights, there’s trouble. No one owns politeness, yet it adorns and sustains the commonweal. What I’ve found is that the vaporous new rules of social etiquette encourage small-minded autodidacts to expand their cultural hegemony, annexing vast swaths of territory they were never meant to govern.
The Quiet Car is a case in point. Most people sit in the Inner Sanctum of Locomotive Tranquility because they want peace and quiet. But there is a particular kind of social crustacean who lurks in the Quiet Car, poised to ambush some hapless salesman who wanders in, yammering into his cellphone, not realizing that he has entered the Sanctum. The poor sap is then pounced upon by previously quiet passengers, who scream at him for daring to defile the Quiet Car. To them, the Quiet Car is not just a place to read without being annoyed by others’ inane cellphone conversations. It is the Temple of Railway Righteousness.
Recently, on a train ride north from Washington, D.C., I was upbraided in the Quiet Car by a belligerently virtuous man sitting nearby. He was livid because I was tearing interesting articles out of the newspaper. He had been sitting there, coiled like a highly judgmental boa constrictor, waiting to strike.
“This is the Quiet Car,” the man hissed. He was staring at me from the very highest peak atop the moral high ground. “You can’t make any noise in here.”
“It’s the Quiet Car, not the Quiet-as-the-Grave Car,” I replied. “I’m not allowed to use my cellphone. But I can sneeze. I can sniffle. I can wheeze. I’m pretty sure it’s OK to sigh with deep regret over the squandered promise of my halcyon youth. And it’s definitely OK to tear interesting articles out of my newspaper.”
“I’m going to call the conductor,” he said.
“Be my guest. He’ll tell you that it’s more like the Quietish Car. You can’t have loud conversations. You’re not supposed to snore. You’re not supposed to whistle. But cutting up newspapers is OK, as long as you do it quietly, the way I’m doing it. By the way, where do you stand on that funny, crunching sound people make in public when they munch on Doritos?”
Modern fussbudgets think they have the right to impose their draconian, hyper-hygienic shopping rules on complete strangers. Recently, I was shopping for bagels when a man who looked as though he listened to a lot of NPR podcasts handed me a pair of tongs. He was being contemptuously judgmental and doing so in an unacceptably confrontational fashion. Sorry, but I don’t need tongs to extract a single bagel from the bagel bin. I can do it with my hands, the way the bartender uses his fingers to put a lime in my Perrier. I’ve seized physical control of bagels – and kaiser rolls and oranges and bananas – in this fashion before, and generally the operation has come off without a hitch. Handing a complete stranger state-mandated tongs in a supermarket is patent passive-aggressive behavior, perhaps compensating for failures in other realms of one’s existence. “This really isn’t about bagels, is it, sir?” I feel like saying as I hand back the unused tongs.
Getting back to smartphones, there are, I think, a few basic social niceties we should adopt. Here are a few:
When checking your email in a public place, mute the phone. Nobody wants to hear that annoying “delete” sound. It shows disrespect for those sitting around you. It’s as bad as clipping your fingernails in public.
When the message on the theater screen tells you to turn off your phone, it means before the previews, not just before the movie. The previews are an essential part of the moviegoing process and if you do not understand this, you should not be at the theater in the first place. Once you enter a movie house, all the talking should be done by someone named Angelina or Keanu or Yun-Fat or Alvin. Nothing you have to say is worth hearing. The one possible exception is if Ben Affleck is up on the screen, grunting. In that case, feel free to make as many calls as you like.
A final thought about contemporary smartphone etiquette: As with all things involving politeness, there is no standard schedule of sanctions against the transgressors. Formerly, when you misbehaved with Ms. Haversham at the tea dance celebrating her debut, your punishment would be that Mrs. Haversham would see to it that you were disinvited to similar events for the rest of the season.
But now, smartphone offensiveness is so frequent and so fundamentally tears at the social fabric that immediate retaliation is permissible. We are all connected, we’re told. So act like it.
When I’m sitting next to someone whose phone conversation spills into my sonic space, I have no trouble with singing my version of Robert Goulet’s Broadway triumph, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” I face the person when doing so. If that doesn’t work, I segue into “Climb Every Mountain.”
That usually does the trick.
Similarly, if you are loudly misleading your spouse or employer or significant other about your whereabouts, you are making everyone in the immediate vicinity complicit in your treachery. So when I hear someone lying on his cellphone, I feel no restraint from shouting: “He can’t possibly make it to your 55th wedding anniversary by 7 o’clock. He’s still in Delaware. And he’s with someone named Brandi.”
But maybe it’s just me.
Some etiquette has a freshness date. Don't be bullied