Topic: Society

The Offense That Isn’t

The Ethics Scoreboard does not aspire to compete with “Miss Manners.” But before people decide that Americans are even ruder than they used to be, there needs to be some common sense applied to the term “rude.” Manners, after all, are nothing more than everyday ethics in the matters where civility, consideration, fairness, caring, dignity and kindness can make life more pleasant for everyone. Before giving credence to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll in which 70% of those questioned felt that Americans were ruder than ever, we should look at what has changed from the last time Americans were found to be rude.

And what do we find? Cell phones! Respondants didn’t like people talking “loudly” on their cell phones in public places. It’s not a surprise. When it was announced that airlines would soon permit travelers to use cell phones in flight, you would have thought that Sumo wrestling was going to be going on down the airplane aisles. “Imagine being stuck next to some cell phone chatterbox for a three hour flight!” the columnists howled. People are rubbed the wrong way by others talking on cell phones in restaurants, by people walking down the street talking on cell phones, by people using cell phones period. The reason, however has nothing to do with the cell phone users and everything to do with those who are being annoyed.

Why is someone talking on a cell phone in an adjoining table in an eating establishment more rude than someone talking to a companion there at the same decibel level? It isn’t. It’s just different than what some of us are used to, so it intrudes on our consciousness, just like it would if someone was having an animated conversation with his dog or brief case. How often have you been disturbed by someone actually shouting into a cell phone? Not often, I bet, and no more often than you’ve had to ignore a stranger talking loudly to a conversant who was present.

I used to find people wearing earphones in public rude. It just rankled me; they were shutting out the world, and me, and I thought it was anti-social and vaguely insulting. Eventually I realized that the problem was mine: why should I care? Would I actually engage any of these individuals in conversation absent their headphones? Doubtful, at best. My annoyance was grounded in a philosophical difference, I decided. Not liking the trend of our communities becoming more fractured into self-sufficient and oblivious individuals, I saw the Walkman users and their ilk as symptoms of a social trend I deplored.

I strongly suspect that cell phone users irritate in a similar way. Using cell phones in public still strikes many as pompous, self-important behavior consciously advertising affluence, importance, or cool. We make judgements about such people, even though we don’t know them, just as many of us make unflattering judgements about people because of what they drive. BMW? Yuppie jerk. SUV? Energy hog. In all cases, we are mistaking our dislike of what we (presumptuously and unfairly) assume people are with a dislike of the behavior that we think tells us what they are. But there’s nothing wrong, rude or unethical about choosing to drive an SUV (yes, Barbra, I’ll debate you on this one) or using a cell phone in public.

What’s ironic about this is that in the past it has served as a useful excuse for those who actually have behaved rudely in public. For example, African-American teens who carried bathtub sized boom boxes playing music at ear-splitting levels in the 80’s were fond of claiming that noise complaints were motivated by racism rather than the blood trickling out of pedestrians’ ears, but no: white kids hoisting the same blasters received similar complaints, and well-earned they were. Inflicting unseemly loudness in public is rude, no doubt about it.

But except in rare occasions, using cell phones isn’t. Before taking offense, ask yourself whether the same conversation absent the phone would be as intrusive. If the answer is no, the problem probably isn’t rudeness. It’s you.

One more thing: none of the foregoing in any way excuses cell phones ringing in restaurants, libraries, movies and ethics seminars. Now that’s rude!

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