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Miss Manners warns readers against reaching out and interrupting someone

May 11, 2011

For me, technology has finally paid off. It is now considered ill-mannered to place a phone call.

Yes, it's true, I saw it in the New York Times. The Times called phone calls "rude, intrusive and awkward."

And no less of an authority than Miss Manners congratulated the reporter for bringing up the topic: "Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now," she said. "I've been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people."

That's what I've been TRYING to TELL you. For about 30 years now — no, 40 years. I didn't even like the telephone back when I was a wee jerk. We had what was known then (and kids, this concept will just floor you) as a "party line" in which two or three houses shared the same phone line.

So if your neighbor was on the phone, you couldn't make a call until she had hung up. And yes, it was always a she. Our particular neighbor had a set of lungs barely in need of electronic amplification, but no matter, she was on the phone all day long, it seemed, and even when we were on the phone you would hear a little "click" and you would know that she'd picked up her handset and was on the line with you, listening in on a conversation that might be more interesting than one of her own making.

Long before anyone had ever heard of homeland security, we would never dare mention any family secret over the telephone lines. So I've kind of been scared of phones ever since. It was too much like public speaking.

I remember being on the phone with a girl when I was 15, which was petrifying enough, and it was impossible to concentrate because I kept hearing the raspy, mildly asthmatic background breathing of our neighbor sharing the line with us. You could never say anything personal. And you lose a lot of face with a girl if all you can talk about is the Arab Oil Embargo.

If I hated phones, I hated car phones worse. The car was my one sanctuary, I felt, where no one could reach me. I recall watching in horror the first time I saw someone using a car phone — forget that it sounded as if she were being patched through to Pluto, it was just too unsettling.

Cellphones were worse still, of course, but now it seems that the worm has turned — it's fine to use a cellphone for anything at all — except placing a phone call. Phone calls are now considered to be the noxious weed poking up through a garden of nonsensical apps.

As a matter of fact, unless it is immediate family, it is now considered to be a phone paux to call someone out of the blue. You can text. You can e-mail. But if you want to have an actual conversation, etiquette requires that you send a message first, asking it it's OK to call.

"Even at work, where people once managed to look busy by wearing a headset or constantly parrying calls back and forth via a harried assistant, the offices are silent," the Times said.

That's true here at the paper, where "working the phones" used to be the sign of a good reporter. Today, the phone rings, and we jump as if it were a rattlesnake.

I should be glad, I guess, even though it's kind of spooky. People spend $200 on a phone they're no longer allowed to make calls on. But I'll take it. Now if the Times could just do something about e-mail.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant at www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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