February 16, 2009

Mobile vulgus

Here’s something that really gets my goat: imagine you’re having a conversation with someone, perhaps discussing military strategies in the second Peloponnesian war, or merely batting phatic trivialities back and forth, and your interlocutor breaks off mid-sentence, reaches into his pocket and, making some vaguely apologetic gesture, takes out a mobile and starts replying to the text he’s just received. Or worse: answers a call and starts chatting, directing his conversational attentions away from their rightful beneficiary and onto an unseen other. Away from the one who, according to every principle of laws canon and civil, has the first claim on them, by dint of priority and physical proximity (a prioritate atque a proximitate corporis, as it is no doubt written in the Pandects of Justinian).

I know I’m not alone in this. I know I’m not the first to make this complaint. And I know I risk coming across as exactly the sort of person I don’t want to be in making it. I’m not a reactionary technophobe, and I don’t want to be one of those people who lament the decline of good manners or the collapse of society. But god damn, it’s annoying.

People didn’t act like this a hundred years ago. I know this because they didn’t have mobile phones. However, they did have telegrams, and if this excerpt from Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades is anything to go by, that technology had a similarly deleterious effect on morals:
Grant, in particular, seemed so dreamy at table that he scarcely saw the pile of letters by his plate, and I doubt if he would have opened any of them if there had not lain on the top that one thing which has succeeded amid modern carelessness in being really urgent and coercive – a telegram.
Letters do not impose on the modern mind this insistent demand for attention. Where a text or a telegram command the immediate breaking off of a conversation or a leisurely breakfast, the reading of a letter may be deferred.

People didn’t act like this four hundred years ago. They didn’t have mobiles or even telegrams then, I am reliably informed. But the relatively old technology of the handwritten letter still had an aura of urgency about it, and Montaigne writes of:
cette passion avide et gourmande de nouvelles, qui nous fait avec tant d'indiscretion et d'impatience abandonner toutes choses, pour entretenir un nouveau venu, et perdre tout respect et contenance, pour crocheter soudain, où que nous soyons, les lettres qu'on nous apporte

(that eager passion for news, which makes us with so much indiscretion and impatience leave all to entertain a newcomer, and without any manner of respect or outcry, tear open on a sudden, in what company soever, the letters that are delivered to us)

[trans. Charles Cotton]
Fifteen centuries before Montaigne, Plutarch was already bemoaning such indiscretions:
And therefore we must by little and little accustom ourselves to this, that when there be any letters brought unto us, we do not open them presently and in great haste, as many do, who if their hands be not quick enough to do the feat, set their teeth to, and gnaw in sunder the threads that sewed them up fast. Also, if there be a messenger coming toward us from a place with any tidings, that we run not to meet him, nor so much as once rise and stir for the matter

[trans. Philemon Holland]
Montaigne, of course, knew his Plutarch, and he approvingly cites the civility and courtesy of one Rusticus, who, ‘being present at a declamation of his [Plutrach’s] at Rome, there received a packet from the emperor, and deferred to open it till all was done: for which all the company highly applauded the gravity of this person.’ But Montaigne sensibly condemns the opposite vice of imprudent negligence, since an unexpected letter from an emperor probably deserves immediate attention, if one has any instinct for self-preservation. (Rusticus was afterwards put to death by Domitian.)

But what lesson can we learn from this about modern manners? I think the etiquette must be that texts and calls received during conversations or meals should not normally be answered, except when they come from an emperor, or person of equivalent rank.


Michael Drake said...

Still, a call on your cell is far less intrusive than a candygram. For example.

John Cowan said...

The current most-urgent delivery scheme, whatever it is at a given time, must not be ignored, for though 99.9% of its messages can readily be deferred, the remaining one may well be a matter of life and death, or at least continuing employment. Rude it may be, but it's also unavoidable.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I don't object to interlocutors looking at incoming texts; and am usually good-natured enough to take their word for it when the message is sufficiently important to require immediate answer. It's people who talk on their phones in the BL reading rooms that really piss me off.