November 26, 2010

The decay of manners

Conservatives (with a small 'c') of every age despair of the lowering of standards and the disruptions-intrusions that innovations bring to their hitherto cosy little worlds.  1913 was no different to any other era.

"R.F.S." writes in The Academy (21 June 1913) of how manners have decayed, thanks to that "most domestic of the great inventions."  Looking first at business use and then domestic use, the author would seem to concede that the telephone has indeed been domesticated, since it was first viewed as a tool for business.  If it was installed in a private residence, it was only because even businessmen sometimes have to go home and rest.

Deterioration of business manners
The author finds it objectionable when he is consulting a lawyer or doctor and he doesn't enjoy that professional's undivided attention, because the lawyer makes or receives telephone calls during the appointment.  The visitor feels as if the professional is
interviewing another, an invisible client
the [client] is troubled by the imaginary presence of a third party, by the obtrusion of a piece of business with which he has no concern.
The phenomenon is a familiar one even today.  You're speaking with someone (friend, consultant, colleague) and his phone (mobile or landline) rings.  He breaks off to answer and you stand around, feeling uncomfortably, not knowing where to look until the call is over, and trying to appear as if you're not listening to the one-sided conversation.  I think this is true when you are a visitor, then you are obliged, in a way, to eavesdrop on the conversation.  At least I personally feel uncomfortable when in these situations and if the call seems to be dragging on, then I go and wait outside till its over.  In a similar vein, how annoying it is when a stranger talks (usually loudly) on his mobile in a public space and we're all forced to listen to his petty private details.  It is a distraction to which we find ourselves drawn.  But I digress.

Deterioration of domestic manners
The author asserts again that those physically present with us take priority over someone else who is merely present 'in spirit' or on paper, hence the custom that people should not read their letters at the dinner table.

New technologies mean that our definition of "present company" must be revised and "R.F.S." does admit that this definition needs to be enlarged to accommodate those who are 'present' via a telephone connection.  Here we can apply Thrift's discussion on "being with" others and his whale example.  In pre-telephone days you could only be with someone who was physically present (though the telegraph was quicker than letter writing, it was still nevertheless like written correspondence in the sense that there could be no immediate interaction with your interlocutor - the two people communicating do not share the same space or time).  In the telephone era, communication was immediate; you don't wait for a response to your comment.  Both parties occupy the same simultaneous time and space (not physical space, of course, but rather the 'space of flows' [Castells] or to be more prosaic, the same piece of copper wire).

So, to conclude, the telephone forced Edwardian society to re-evaluate just what they meant by "present company".  Their rules of polite society dictated that you give your full attention to those standing in front of you.  If you turned to someone who wasn't there in the flesh (represented by a letter or phone call) then that was rude and the other party was an intruder.

The writer censures hosts who worsen established rules by getting up from the dinner table to answer the telephone.  Have you ever tried to ignore a ringing telephone, either at home or work, or even a public phone in the street?  It is very difficult.  (I think the only exception would be if I knew the caller's identity - thanks to caller ID - and it was someone I didn't want to speak to.)

The writer equates letters with phone calls: we read our correspondence at breakfast time so that might be a good time to make a telephone call.  However, morning is not the usual time to make calls or receive callers - we know that 'morning calls' are made between 3.00pm and 6.00pm.  

Social invitations by telephone
When organising a formal event that required lots of forward planning, the host should really send out written invitations.  A telephone call only gradually became acceptable for very informal occasions, organised at short notice, and when inviting close friends.  The writer finds telephone invitations issued at the last minute as "less honourable."  Reading between the lines, it sounds as if a person invited at such short notice is being used as a stop-gap or a last-minute replacement to make up the numbers, someone from the 'reserve list.'  'If you deserve an invitation, you get a fancy card to display on your mantelpiece.'  Otherwise, how can you demonstrate your social credibility as an invited guest if you've only got a telephone invitation, which leaves no evidence.

The writer's solution to retard the decaying process?  Regulate telephone usage: custom should dictate when the time is appropriate to make a telephone call, as was the case with personal visits.  He wouldn't have been very pleased with 21st-century manners: they are not only decaying, they are positively putrid.

R.F.S.  "The Telephone and the Decay of Manners."  Academy and Literature, 2146 (21 June 1913), p786.

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