Erikka Askeland: Courtesy matters in a Hi-tech world

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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WHEN it comes to using your mobile phone at the supermarket checkout, I’m with the woman behind the counter.

It must be highly irksome when you are totting up the cost of someone’s groceries only to have to listen to them bray inanities about their plans for the weekend. No wonder the harried store assistant gave her a stony stare and refused to serve her until the phone offender, a Miss Clarke from Crayford, hung up and met her eye.

But then again, I’m not one of those people who feel the need to be in constant conversation with people who aren’t there. Perhaps it is a failing of mine. Come to think of it, there are lots of people I think of wistfully, wonder what they are up to and probably should call more often.

Of course, I prefer having a good catch-up with friends and loved ones face to face, often imbibing food or alcohol (probably both) together. That’s the gold standard of maintaining relationships. But hey, life is busy and people are more free range these days, spreading themselves out around the country. It’s not practical to just hove down to, say, Manchester or Newport just for a chinwag.

The fact almost all of us now have in our pockets technology not unlike what characters in the first series of Star Trek had is pretty brilliant. When that series came out, the notion of being able to conference-call Klingons was pure science fiction. But I guess that makes me sound old. The people who are growing up now will never have to stretch a phone cord to reach the cupboard under the stairs so your family can’t overhear you gossiping about your classmates.

But we shouldn’t let the fabulousness of being constantly connected allow us to forget about manners. You don’t have to tell them your life story, but a person at the till deserves to be at least acknowledged. Better if they are spared a no-holds account of your personal life while you are at it.

I extend this courtesy to any number of people employed in a service industry. If I’m listening to music on my phone when the bus arrives, I take the little earbuds out when I drop my coins in the fare box next to the driver. I’m practically best friends with the guys who run the shop where I get my coffee in the morning, such is the warmth of our commercial interaction.

The etiquette expert I heard speaking about it this week seemed to back me up. Mary Killen, who writes on knotty modern dilemmas for a magazine, reckons the assistant in the checkout-gate case was in the right. She argued it is depressing for people who serve others to be ignored. I was happy about this until Miss Manners said this extended to taxi drivers, who tend not to like having people using their phone in their cab, she said. It is then that I thought: oh dear, we are no longer on the same page.

I’m not blethering into my phone every time I get into a taxi but I have been known to be talking to someone when I get on board. I feel bad about this and make sure the driver and I have an understanding about where we are going before I continue. And if I’m not actually jabbering away, I’m using the back of the taxi as a private space where I tend to stare at my phone in silent communion during my journey.

Maybe it is a protective thing. Sometimes I just really don’t feel up to bitching about the tramworks. That said, I’ve had some excellent chats with drivers about any number of pressing subjects – travel abroad, economic theory, kittens on the internet. Some taxi drivers are bursting fonts of all kinds of arcane knowledge, offering education and door-to-door conveyance. But sometimes it’s just the ride I’m after.

The fact is our handy little pocket phones have turned us into a nation of exhibitionists unafraid to discuss our innermost secrets in front of crowds of strangers. Not that I’m not guilty – I’ve given out my credit card details over the phone to someone while sitting on a bus. Only afterwards I thought: how stupid was that?

But as being “in touch” with everyone we know wherever we are is the new normal, we probably need some updated rules. I would tell you what they are but if you’ll excuse me I just have to take this call.