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Writer's Block: Miss Manners

What recently developed technology—cell phones, wi-fi, laptops, handheld gaming devices, etc.—do you think has had the worst influence on how people behave in public?

Call Holding and Forwarding on personal home phones.

At first voice messaging and call holding were something people put up with at the office, phone tag and being put on hold for someone you need to talk to at work is a major stress -- and often a huge time sink for anyone whose job isn't specifically answering the phone. It's bureaucratic, impersonal and humiliating. It means you're not as important as that call coming in.

But when that function got added to personal lines, all of a sudden your annoying relatives and people who are trying to sell you things and every trivial or unwanted call has the priority of some important work related call. Not to mention that encouraged supervisors and jobs to call people at home more often and expect to be put through with priority, not just respond to a busy signal by trying again later.

The stress of having to answer multiple calls is one of the things that makes office work miserable. Now it's even part of people's private lives. This was the straw that broke the camel's back as far as me and using the phone for friendships and personal contacts. There's no way I want to put up with that kind of treatment in something where I'm supposed to be enjoying myself and my life. So I stopped even doing personal calls, or giving phone numbers to friends. Email is a lot more gracious.

Throughout my life the phone has become more and more intrusive. People use it more for ever more trivial reasons and expect to get your undivided attention to whatever random small talk they feel like getting into, over any real priorities you have. Couples get interrupted in mid-lovemaking and most people will actually stop to answer the phone. Cell phones mean that it'll go off when you're in the bathroom, last bastion of privacy in the modern world. And now when you've been interrupted while making love in the tub, standing there dripping wet with an unhappy partner still in the water, you can be put on hold by that annoying relative who demands top priority in your time all the time or the needy drama queen who has to talk about the latest personal crisis in his or her life.

Maybe if the drama queen wasn't answering the phone hundreds of times a day and juggling interrupting calls from others, being put on hold by people who were just acquaintances in favor of telemarketers, the drama queen's life could even settle down an entire notch.

But that is actually the nastiest technological element to ruin people's consideration and politeness. Being polite is accepting that a busy signal means the person's not available. Sanely holding your boundaries means taking the phone off the hook or turning it off when you're doing something important and don't want to be interrupted.

Very few people have the will power to do so. Living with a modern phone and typical social circles is a bit like having a three year old around with adult needs -- it makes anyone harassed by a crowd. It makes sense for a teen to be on the phone all the time because that gets them out of their own heads and out into building their own social lives. Like startup in anything, building a real social life for the first time takes intense efforts. Adults don't need to live that way but a surprising number do...

And don't realize that it's one of the big reasons why projects don't get done and days slide by with unfinished laundry or home improvements, plans shattered, everything falling behind all the time and at the same time a level of stress and aggravation that because it's normal, people don't even notice it -- but those around them feel it in their behavior. After all if everyone else has the right to interrupt everything you're doing and then put you on hold, who's going to be altruistic enough never to do that to someone else?
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Robert A. Sloan, author of Raven Dance

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