Alexander McCall Smith: How to avoid dragons of modern etiquette

Video conferencing has raised fresh issues about what should be considered personal and private information, writes Alexander McCall Smith.

Video conferencing has opened up new questions about what is, and is not, polite (Picture: Getty)
Video conferencing has opened up new questions about what is, and is not, polite (Picture: Getty)

It’s not that people have nothing to do, but readers have been active again sending in their questions for personal attention. In fact, as this period of seclusion – a much more positive term than the crude expression ‘lockdown’ – has dragged on, the volume of letters addressed to the few remaining newspaper or magazine problem pages has grown considerably. Arguably, in these uncertain days, the need for such columns is more pressing than ever before; perhaps the ‘new normal’ will be far more sympathetic to the widespread sharing of problems and the advice they elicit. In anticipation of that moment, I have addressed here some of the questions that have been sent to this newspaper. This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course; there are many outstanding problems that must inevitably go unanswered.

Mrs JB of Broughty Ferry, who wrote some months ago to enquire about the correct pronunciation of Gullane (which is Gillin) is typical of many people who have been organising their social life around Zoom video conversations. She writes: “Zoom has been an utter God-send up here in Broughty Ferry! I have been having regular coffee conversation with friends in various places (Carnoustie, Montrose, Gullane etc) and have been much entertained by their background against which I see their image. Often these are bookshelves, and this has made me think: is it legitimate to blow up their on-screen image so as to be able to read the titles of the books behind them? Is this rude? Is it intrusive? Is it any of my business what they are reading? What if I see a salacious title, such as that interior decoration book everybody’s been talking about, Fifty Shades of …?”

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The problem that Mrs JB raises is a very real one, and it has many ramifications, not just in this ‘Stay Secluded!’ time. Mrs JB is obviously very respectful of the privacy of others, but can rest assured that not only may one take a close look at Zoom background titles, but that is precisely what the other person wants you to do. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the books one sees on the shelves of others in Zoom conversations are placed there specifically to impress. These are not the books that the other person is reading – they are they books they would like you to think they are reading. So you will almost always see Professor Hawking’s Brief History of Time there, along with the latest commentaries on the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant and David Hume, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s magisterial 625-page treatise on the works of Bach, and Professor Gilmore’s study of the constitutional history of Newfoundland. You will not see any of the diverting stable-yard romances of Miss Jilly Cooper.

Your question, though, Mrs JB, raises broader issues that cannot be ignored. The virtual world has its own suppositions and etiquette, and different considerations may apply in the real world. If you visit friends – when that is once again allowed – you may find yourself in a position to read the spines of books on their real, unscripted bookshelves. Is it considered polite to do that? To bend down and peer more closely? Or should one merely cast an occasional glance?

The answer to that is that you may glance but you should not bend down. (As a general rule, do not bend down in other people’s houses – for any reason.) So with a glance you may get an idea of their reading habits and form an appropriate conclusion as to the state of their inner intellectual lives. Do not gasp or otherwise exclaim if you see a title that surprises or shocks. It is always possible that they may not have read the book in question.

On your visit you may need to go to the bathroom. This is entirely normal, and there are no etiquette considerations attached to making the request. But you must request permission with an appropriate formula, such as “May I use the...” And then make a euphemistic washing motion with your hands. If they misread you and pass you hand sanitizer, it may be necessary to be more direct. It is important to note, of course, that if you are the host you should never refuse permission in these circumstances, even if your stockings, your corset or your nethergarments (the Edinburgh demotic for underpants) are hanging in the shower.

Once you are in your host’s bathroom, strict rules of etiquette – and morality, for that matter – are applicable. You may look at what is on the open shelves. You may scrutinise shampoos, shaving creams, and skin products – except those that are labelled “for dermatological use only”. You may try perfumes and after-shave lotions, but only in moderation. Many friendships have been strained when hosts have detected their personal products on their guests when they emerge from the bathroom.

Mrs JB: you did not mention the issue of postcards, but I can imagine that this is a subject of some anxiety up in Broughty Ferry. People often ask whether it is wrong to read other people’s post cards if you should find them lying about. The answer to that is an unequivocal no. A postcard may be a personal communication, but it is a personal communication that, by its very nature, waives the right of confidentiality. If people want to say something private, they should use an envelope to conceal their thoughts. So you are fully entitled to read what is written on a postcard addressed to somebody else. But there is one major qualification to that: you are not entitled to pass on the contents to others. That is because the writer of the postcard may be giving implicit permission for what is written to be read, but this permission does not envisage the whole world’s knowing.

This leads on to an exposition of the triune nature of the word ‘confidential’. In Edinburgh, where the word has a clear local set of meanings, confidential means: tell only those people with whom you have a close friendship; strictly confidential means tell only one other person at a time; and absolutely confidential means wait until tomorrow until you tell anyone at all.

Dear Mrs JB, your question has taken up all the space available. There are so many other queries that demand attention. Life is complicated. We must feel our way through it. Hic sunt dracones. I hope that the above helps. I really do.

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