"Unruled letter paper, white or cream-white, with envelope to match, is used for social correspondence. Ink should be black or dark blue. Do not use a typewriter or a pencil."
—Hints of Etiquette
In a box of stuff that belonged to my grandfather, I found a book titled Hints of Etiquette. Its yellowing pages attested to the year it was published—1924.
The title reminded me that I hadn't thought much about etiquette since the days my mother objected to elbows on the dinner table. The prospect of a time-capsule glimpse of the Roaring '20s—a decade I associate with speakeasies, the Charleston, Duke Ellington and the Harlem Renaissance—drew me in. If the twenties was indeed a tumultuous decade, I found no evidence of it in the book. Instead, its pages evoked an age as quaint as a curtsy in which decorum held sway. The book's atmospherics were more Jane Austen than F. Scott Fitzgerald or Langston Hughes.
Judge for yourself:
"A woman joins a group of men in an elevator. Instantly, nearly every man's hat comes off. A few retain the hats. It is not to these few that the woman's heart is warmed." (Even more warmed by a handwritten letter on cream-white paper, I surmise.)
"Social correspondence" has morphed into "social media" in the 21st century. Fountain pens and stationery have yielded to smartphones, tablets and laptops. Americans spend about 10 and a half hours a day on digital devices. We check our phones every seven minutes. However, whether you compose a letter or a text, the underlying social transactions are the same.
My grandfather's book lays out rules of etiquette for letters—no "blots, erasures, evidences of carelessness and haste"—so I presume there are rules governing texts and emails. I don't know for certain because I don't use social media. But I have gleaned one cardinal rule: Use your phone whenever you want, even if driving a car, sitting on a toilet, dining in a restaurant or playing with your kids.
Curious about other rules, I turned to Reclaiming Conversation, a book by Sherry Turkle, an eminent MIT professor who is an expert on digital culture. As the title suggests, our obsession with phones is eroding "the most human—and humanizing—thing we do," face-to-face conversation. The result? "Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled," Turkle writes.
In the 1920s, conversation was a cultivated pastime. Women hosted "at- home days" dedicated to receiving visitors. "The customary time for calls is between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m.," the etiquette book stipulates. "This avoids conflicting with the tea hour at 5. No one but intimates should drop in at tea time."
We moderns are reluctant conversationalists, Turkle observes. We prefer a crafted message to the immediacy of face-to-face talk. If a conversation holds no promise after seven minutes, Turkle describes a "seven-minute rule" that permits you to reach for the phone.
On the other hand, "phubbing" is as problematical as the glow of a phone in a darkened theater. To phub is to snub the one you're with by engaging with a phone. A considerate person leaves the room when the phone rings.
In texting, punctuation demands a deft touch. The right punctuation is very important, writes Turkle, because it "expresses all the information that tone of voice and body posture conveys in face-to-face conversation." What's the right punctuation? As Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it!!! Emoticons are to texts what Ivanka is to the Trumpster.
That a post or a message must be answered immediately is the 11th commandment. But there are those who deviate in order to seem nonchalant. Their rule: Wait a day to reply on Facebook. Their rationale: If you respond too eagerly, you imply your life outside of social media is as colorless as concrete.
The most inviolate of the rules is: Don't use a text or email to break up. Nothing good will come of it.
In the aggregate, the conventions Turkle describes leave me uneasy. "We sense that new social rules allow us to check our phones almost all the time," she writes, "but we also sense that on some human level these rules don't feel right."
It didn't feel right at a chamber-music concert at Westminster College. At the end of an impressive performance, the pianist—dressed in a lacy, black gown—left the stage and found an empty seat in the audience. After the intermission, as her colleagues played Shubert to an approving crowd, she played her iPhone to a disapproving one.
It didn't feel right watching University of Utah students walk out of class while the professor was talking. It happened so often in so many classes I wondered if Inelastic Bladder Disorder was endemic. Not so. Turkle explained that it was not the urge to pee that caused them to interrupt the class, it was the urge to text.
Even the phone-addicted will admit to reservations. "No phones allowed" meetings are more common, as is the Cell Phone Tower challenge in restaurants. Diners pile their phones in a tower on the table as they sit down. The phones are "on," but the first person to touch his phone buys dinner for all.
The story of the tower will raise a smile of incredulity in 2024. By then, the iPhone will be tracking VCRs into the museum. Parents will be hiring empathy coaches for their kids, and boys will learn to warm girls' hearts with a handwritten note on cream-white paper. Let's hope. CW
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