DON’T PHONE A FRIEND
We reveal our truest selves in relating to those who are less powerful than we are and with whom we have only a fleeting relationship.
Periodically, anxiety bubbles to the surface about the loss of manners in public life. In the developing summer of 2013, it crystallised in a plain row at a supermarket check-out when a cashier refused to serve a customer until she had ended a mobile phone call. The check-out assistant over-reached herself in claiming it was company policy not to serve customers distracted this way when there was no such policy, leaving a rude consumer to claim spurious moral high ground.
The whole episode was so prosaic and unexceptional that most people were surprised to see it gain such prominence, but perhaps the symbolism lay in its sheer ordinariness. Mobile technology has an hypnotic effect on users and the addiction grows as the phone is put to more uses. Our technophilia edges ever nearer a strange kind of post-modern idolatry. For all the ways in which the mobile purports to serve us, we are drawn ineluctably to serving it instead. The purest form of idol worship is always the subtlest and most unself-conscious and this particular form is doing strange things to us, such as leading us to ignore people in front of us in favour of those who aren’t.
It would be an exaggeration to say that a piece of technology which has enabled us to relate to others at the touch of a thumb is inexorably undermining our relationships, but there is a pressing need to establish fresh etiquette to guide our public spaces. Manners take generations to emerge and form, usually in response to changing environments. Most of us see the priority of holding open doors and not interrupting others, even if we fail in this from time to time. However, we are struggling to keep up with the pace of technical change in the way we shape our life together. While some have an instinctive grasp of how to use technology respectfully, others do not and our developing addiction to checking out things elsewhere is distorting our duty to the person in front of us.
Manners are the outward and visible sign of an inward grace and thus possess a sacramental feel to them. They do not necessarily guarantee human love and kindness, for people can learn to be mannered as a way of smoothing the path of selfishness. Some of the most difficult people we encounter in life can be socially skilled, making it all the harder to cope with their manipulation. Yet manners are usually an indication of someone with an intuitive understanding of the needs of others.
Some people clearly feel that good manners are in decline in modern Britain. The loss of shame surrounding celebrity behaviour may have contributed to a coarsening of public life but it is too simple and convenient for us to lay the blame with others. One largely unobserved aspect of the strange case of the cashier and the shopper is the question of status. While many people are careful to show their manners to those they wish to impress, we reveal our truest selves in relating to those who may be less powerful than we are and with whom we have only a fleeting relationship. The way we treat service sector workers, from the check-out worker to the pizza deliverer or the waitress is almost a fire-proof way of showing how deep our habits penetrate.
Jesus spoke disarmingly of the way the first shall be last, and the last first. In modern Britain, the last are probably the ones in whose company we feel able to turn to our phones with impunity. As always, Jesus is staring out at us from their faces.
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