Technology, The Real World and Social Etiquette

Recently Dave Snowden raised the issue of the virtual and the real in one of his blogs and the impact of technology on family and community life.  In commenting on the post, Peter Stanbridge said “When I am in the same room as someone else I can see, touch and smell that other person. My engagement is much stronger than possible in a virtual world.”

The comment reminded me of a little hang-up I have about people glued to their mobile phones and blackberries and how it has impacted etiquette and common courtesies.  Here are some of the recent encounters.

Several months ago, I was invited to dinner by a dear friend. She had been travelling quite a lot and we had not seen each other for almost half a year. I was very much looking forward to catching up on what we had both been up to and what’s on the horizon for us, apart from the usual chatter about our previous place of work. When I arrived, she was on her mobile phone and gestured me to take a seat as she continued to speak to the person on the other line. When she had finished the call, we greeted each other and our conversation began. Not long after, she received another call, which she took immediately, without even excusing herself. When the call was over, we walked to the buffet table to get some food. Back at the table, we had about another 10 minutes of conversation before her phone rang again. This time the call was a long one, and she made no apologies. I continued to eat and then decided to take food for the both of us from the buffet table to save her some time walking, so that we could do more talking. The final straw was when we ended the evening with her phone on her shoulder, hands busy taking her credit card out, then signing the bill and we both walked out of the restaurant with her still on the line. The evening fell short of expectations for while I was in her “real” world, she spent most of her time and attention in her “virtual” world.

On another occasion, I was travelling in a cab with my sister. During the conversation, I suddenly remembered that I needed to contact a relative of ours but that I did not have the person’s contact number. My sister had the number and offered to give it to me. I started to create a new entry on my mobile phonebook so that I could key in the data as she read out the number. Then, I watched my sister, thumbing away for a long, long time. After what seemed like long enough to search and not find, I said “It’s OK if you don’t have it”, to which she replied “No, I have it but I’m replying to a text message first – sorry”.

Now, these people are close to me and certainly not out to intentionally offend me by making me feel invisible. Yet, I wonder if technology had made us begin to take people in the “real” world for granted – “They will always be there” – and to make it a priority instead to respond to people in the virtual for “They may choose to go away”. Perhaps, as Peter said, with people in the same room, you can see, touch and smell that other person, and maybe that’s why it seems OK to just be physically present because you can both see, touch and smell, but is the engagement necessarily stronger than in the virtual? Are we more engaged in the virtual simply because we cannot see, touch and smell that other person and want to avoid offending him/her by not being promptly responsive?

Sailing between the “real” and virtual” has become so seamless as a process and potentially “seamful” as an impact. Technology need not necessarily be “social connectors”. They are becoming threatening “social disconnectors” as well.

I wonder if there were occasions when I too had done the same thing as my friend and sister without even realising it, although I think and hope not. But I can imagine that it would be very easy to be “hooked” in to the habit of responding to the sound of the tone/tune of the phone, like a dog trained to hear a bell.

4 Comments so far

Too true Paolina! I’ve had similar experiences involving the use of Blackberries during meetings.

Posted on October 02, 2006 at 02:57 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Perhaps these devices should come packaged with a handbook on social etiquette enclosed or a sticker that can be pasted on the unit to remind people of it. We need an emoticon to depict this!

Posted on October 02, 2006 at 05:08 PM | Comment permalink

(another) Green Chameleon

Wonder i “touching” and smelling” are able to make human engagement “stronger” my themselves?

I believe we are as responsible in our virtual communication whan in the so-called “real” world. Yet the problem is that only a few realize that…

I think it is not about “real” and “not-so-real”, it is about mutual human respect. If you have talked with your friend in ICQ and she were talking with other people all the time, it would be the same… do you agree?

Posted on October 04, 2006 at 05:31 PM | Comment permalink

Paolina Martin

Yes. that could happen too.  Might be easier to excuse myself though and have the chat another time.  Thanks for the comment.

Posted on October 05, 2006 at 11:18 AM | Comment permalink

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