IT’S 10am in Asda and I’m yelling down my mobile phone as I cruise the aisles picking up products to put in my basket.
After all, I tell myself, who wouldn’t be fascinated by the minutiae of my personal life? The colour scheme of my newly decorated back bedroom, the strange noise my car is making when I put my foot on the clutch and my last-minute dash to buy my son hiking boots before a trip away with friends are insights into my world the grocery-buying public should feel privileged to share. Why is that woman over by the pizzas screwing up her face at me? I expect she’s just concentrating, fearful she might miss out on an interesting tidbit of information, such as how I knocked over a full glass of fresh orange juice before I left the house this morning or how I hope the postman will deliver that parcel I’m expecting.
I’m still yapping away by the time I join the queue for the check-out; the mild-mannered man at the till tries to engage me with a smile, which I half-return (I’m not a monster) before returning immediately to my conversation and looking right through him for the rest of the transaction. There seems to be a bit of a frosty atmosphere as he has to pack my shopping into plastic bags (difficult to manage when you’re clutching a phone to your ear with one hand and trying to find your bank card with the other) and it’s just possible the man behind me in the queue rolls his eyes, but no-one asks me to desist from my chattering, not even when a litre of milk falls out of my bag, because I’m more focused on telling the person on the other end of the phone about my extended family’s holiday plans than I am on the task in hand.
To be honest, though the body language of those around me suggests a degree of irritation, the overwhelming response to my loud-mouthed ignorance is one of resignation. Indeed, I suspect the person who has been most discomfited by this Dom Joly-esque experiment in modern manners (or the lack of them) is me. So accustomed have we become to people whose engagement with new technology is so all-consuming it makes them oblivious to all around them, it’s hardly worth noticing never mind getting worked up about.
Unless, of course, you are the crusading check-out assistant who was working in Sainsbury’s in Crayford, south-east London last week. Tired of being ignored, the woman told customer Jo Clarke to end her call or she wouldn’t serve her – a move which, while falling somewhat short of Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, has nevertheless been hailed as a courageous stand against mobile-phone effrontery.
Though the assistant was told off for her behaviour (aren’t all moral pioneers persecuted?) and Clarke given £10 in compensation, the worker’s decision to withdraw her labour, albeit fleetingly, has put her at the vanguard of a movement to force users of all types of technological devices to mind their manners. Clarke – who was calling her brother to pass on the big news that she was at the check-out in Sainsbury’s – may not understand what all the fuss is about, but hundreds of supporters took to Twitter and other social media to laud the check-out assistant’s stance, with some calling for her to be promoted. “That Sainsbury’s check-out girl is my new hero,” said Joe Fellows-Cameron. “No wonder this country is in turmoil if we forget to use basic manners,” said Melissa Mackenna.
It is testimony to the current strength of feeling against mobile motormouths that – in the rush to back the Sainsbury’s One – her defenders chose to overlook the fact that, when it comes to appalling manners, some of the worst offenders are shop assistants who carry on conversations about drunken nights out over the top of customers’ heads, or who respond to a query over the whereabouts of some everyday product with a baffled look and a shrug of the shoulders. But the backlash has been a long time coming; since the day mobile phones were first invented, some people have believed their sole purpose was to annoy fellow passengers or library- or lift-users – hence the aforementioned prank from Trigger Happy TV which had Joly shouting: “I’M ON THE TRAIN” into a giant black box with buttons. The sight of people with their ears superglued to their phones while they walk their babies or their dogs is commonplace. And every trip to the cinema involves tholing a handful of oddballs who are happy to pay the price of a ticket yet insist on forsaking the big screen for their tiny one.
Now and again, the sheer witlessness of those who prefer the company of a disembodied voice to those directly in front of them is captured on film. Remember when Peaches Geldof was photographed still jabbering away, her phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder as she bent down to pick up her baby Astala after accidentally tipping him out of his pram? And then there was the man who managed to get on stage with Nile Rodgers at Glastonbury last weekend – and spent his time there texting, rather than living in the moment – much to the annoyance of other fans.
The practice of playing loud music through tinny mobile-phone speakers, so fellow passengers are forced to endure the generic chart music they boycott Capital Radio to avoid, is so infuriating it has been dubbed “sodcasting” – a term thought to have been coined by writer Pascal Wyse who wrote, “sodcasters are terrified of not being noticed, so they spray their audio wee around the place like tomcats”.
And the growth of social media has only exacerbated the problem. Many of us now feel compelled to check our Twitter or Facebook feeds on a minute-by minute basis, sometimes using it as a shield against an onslaught of unwanted small talk. I must admit I have been known to produce my phone in awkward social situations to make me look occupied, but there is a time and a place. And a funeral isn’t one of them. Who knows why journalist George Stark accused Alec Baldwin’s wife Hilaria of tweeting as friends and relatives said farewell to much-loved Sopranos star James Gandolfini, but the accusation was enough to send Baldwin into a tailspin of rage which ended in him quitting Twitter (until the next time).
It’s all very well complaining about the way new technology rules our lives, but is there an accepted code of conduct for its use? Where some behaviour – such as talking at a check-out – is obviously rude, other practices tread a fine line. Is it ever OK to answer texts while dining with a friend? What about when you’re on a first date?
Such is our need for guidance on good practice, Debrett’s now has a section of its website devoted to mobile-phone use. It suggests you don’t make calls from inappropriate venues such as toilets (“very off-putting”) and that, if you’re waiting for an important communication while meeting someone socially, that you explain the situation in advance and apologise for the inconvenience.
However, the organisation which describes itself as the “authority of etiquette, taste and achievement” was less forthcoming when it came to providing an expert to discuss modern mores. Note to Debrett’s: failing to make any effort to find someone who can talk on a subject which is your raison d’être is not any less rude because you coat your indifference in a veneer of politesse. Note to self: never take advice on etiquette from an organisation whose idea of civility involves sending a terse e-mail refusing to speak about the concept of civility.
More helpful – and entirely courteous – is Will Norman, director of research at the think-tank The Young Foundation. Last year, Norman wrote a report called the Charm Offensive: Cultivating Civility in 21st Century Britain, which looked, among other things, at the social dilemmas posed by modern technology.
Having discovered an enduring desire for good manners, he was unsurprised by the furore provoked by Checkoutgate. “It may sound really trivial – someone talking on a mobile phone at a till – but civility is the oil that keeps the cogs of society going,” he says. “That’s even more true in the modern world where we all feel the pressure of time and the churning of populations. With people from so many different backgrounds and cultures thrown together, we need this underlying politeness to bind us together.”
Many people Norman interviewed, from taxi drivers to doctors’ receptionists, spoke of feeling invisible as people carried on phone conversations as if they weren’t there. “We even had GPs who told us of patients breaking off mid-examination to answer their mobiles,” he says. “If it’s a one-off, then it doesn’t matter so much, but if you are experiencing it day in, day out, then it affects your self-esteem.”
The problem, according to Norman, is that it takes time for new social codes to evolve and a strict protocol over what is and what isn’t acceptable when it comes to new technology is still in development. While he ridicules the idea of supermarkets or governments having a policy on such matters, he believes people could be prompted into behaving better by signs – similar to those in buses reminding passengers to give up assigned seats to the infirm – placed discreetly at the tills.
Beyond the abhorrence of rudeness lies a fear that an over-reliance on technology may be damaging our ability to form proper relationships with real people. If this seems like scaremongering, consider a survey by consumer electronics shopping and review site Retrevo which found 10 per cent of under-25s thought it acceptable to text while having sex.
We have all encountered couples who spend their time in restaurants surfing the net; some of us have even been texted breakfast orders by children too lazy to get out of bed (and have sent suitably contemptuous texts back). But according to journalist Brian Viner, tennis star Laura Robson recently had an encounter which reinforced how social media was getting in the way of even the most basic human interaction. She was sitting in an airport waiting for a flight to Lisbon when some men waiting for the same flight recognised her. Instead of plucking up the courage to approach her, they tweeted her, saying: “We’re sitting next to you.” She tweeted back, “Yes, I know, feel free to come over and say Hi,” but they didn’t, which, she said, made the rest of the journey extremely awkward.
What is the world coming to when people feel more comfortable communicating in 140 characters via a tiny screen than striking up a conversation? Yet, despite the sense of solidarity created by the Sainsbury’s debacle, Norman fears it will get worse before it gets better.
“We have issues around mobile phones, but they’re quite old now – what about the technology that’s still developing like Google glasses?” he asks. “How would we feel if, instead of chatting on a phone, a customer at a check-out was watching porn while they were being served? These are the questions which might confront us in the not too distant future.”«