Digital Era Incivility

May 17, 2010

After months of observation, watching a re-run of a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode last week and reading an article over the weekend, I’m convinced. With the rise of the Digital Era we are seeing the demise of polite culture.

The Curb episode was from a scene in its latest season where Larry is having a conversation with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is texting on her Blackberry while looking up and nodding occasionally to Larry, only half-heartedly participating in the discussion. “Would you read a magazine right in front of my face?” asks Larry, to Louis-Dreyfus’ chagrin. He is notorious for sticking his foot in his mouth on the HBO show, but he had a valid point here – since when is playing around on your phone right in front of someone considered acceptable etiquette? How is it any different than skimming the pages of US Weekly?

The article that I read was “Sending a Message You Don’t Care” by Christine Pearson in Sunday’s NY Times Business section. In it, Pearson writes about texting/emailing/cruising the Web in the workplace. She addresses how many of us acknowledge that it takes place and that’s it rude; but also that a lot of us admit to doing it ourselves. She calls this incivility and here is a quote explaining it, much to my – and presumably Larry’s – approval:

“I define incivility as behavior, seemingly inconsequential to the doer, that others perceive as inconsiderate. Electronic devices lead to more incivility because of their powerful ability to claim our attention– no matter where we are or what we’re doing.”

Hell, I bet Larry read this and sent Christine a letter of admiration. In that “Curb” scene, Louis-Dreyfus’ behavior was inconsequential to her but it pissed Larry off and her electronic device led to this rift. Think about it, how many times in the last week did you feel snubbed by a colleague or acquaintance when you thought you had the floor and their electronic device was the tool that enabled their behavior? Now think harder, any chance you did the exact same thing to someone else but just didn’t realize it? That’s what I thought.

Here we are in an era where articles like 14 Ways To Use Twitter Politely are published daily but yet we don’t know how to apply those rules digitally while still being polite in real life. Come to think of it, I bet the chances that someone out there read that article on their iPhone during a lunch meeting with an associate recently are pretty damn good; you’ve got to love the irony.

I feel for college professors quite possibly the most. You all know the image of the student holding an upside-down textbook in class while actually reading a magazine inside of it – only to be caught by the teacher. That day is over. Today’s lecture hall is full of students with laptops out and you know the poor professors know everyone isn’t taking notes. It’s got to be tough. Would a student ever play poker with a classmate, have a discussion about the previous night’s dorm room shenanigans, flip through a physical photo album or read a celebrity gossip magazine during class? Not a chance. But with Poker Stars, instant messaging, Facebook and Perez Hilton this happens everyday in biology classes around the country.

And it’s not just in the professional and academic setting that this incivility is taking place. Think about a recent social outing of yours; you’re having a bar conversation with a friend and while you’re talking, they’re popping their head up and down while texting, emailing, tweeting, etc. If you questioned them – which you likely didn’t – they likely said “I got a text and didn’t want to not answer – that would be rude.” Your friend might as well have been talking to one of the other bar patrons playing darts while you blabbed away.

Why do we do this? Has WiFi made our entire culture one of incivility and lacking good manners? Pearson writes that she often hears this rationalization: “It’s a way to multitask and increase efficiency.” And I’ve heard people explain it as us “being a busier culture than past generations.” I say bullshit to both. It’s just because we choose to be busier and the devices are our enablers. And Pearson rejects the former argument when writing “neuroscientists tell us that dividing our attention between competing stimuli instead of handling tasks one at a time actually makes us less efficient.”So what is it? Pearson explains a more neurological reason:

“Through our devices, we find a way to disappear without leaving the room. By splitting ourselves off and reaching out electronically, we fill empty interpersonal space and ignite our senses. We can find relief and a fleeting sense of freedom.”

And there you have it; I couldn’t have written it better myself even if I tried for days. How long we’re all going to be able to ignite our senses and feel this sense of relief and freedom is anyone’s guess. So what am I proposing? That we all take “Digital Era Etiquette 101” Continuing Education courses? No, the instructor would probably be on Twitter while teaching us. Should we call up Oprah and see if she wants to do a spin-off of her campaign against texting while driving? No. And for the record, I did write a portion of this post while talking to someone face-to-face, so I’m not going to be a hypocrite. Let’s just all try to recognize the fact that we are a little inconsiderate in the way we overly-consume everything digital and try to avoid an era of complete incivility in 2015. You with me?