In which bad manners are in the iPhone of the beholder

In these times of ever-evolving communication methods, it can be hard to know exactly what constitutes bad manners. We’ve just about settled on the fact that exposed table legs are now acceptable, while wiping your nose on the vicar’s curtains still isn’t, but everything in between remains a hazy mess of subjective squeamishness.

I’ve been thinking about modern manners recently, fuelled by several events. The first was the arrival of a press release about the Birmingham Food Fest, at which Michelin-starred chef Richard Turner had reportedly banned mobile phones at dinner tables. “When dining out at a restaurant, four in ten adults would think nothing of using a smartphone, making calls, texting and checking emails,” it sniffed from my inbox, before going on to complain that some people don’t even use their cutlery correctly.  Ye gads! What WOULD Escoffier say?

Hot on the heels of this whinge was the release of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which prompted a slew of articles about how gadgets are making us lonelier people with terrible social skills and overdeveloped thumb muscles. And while I hugely admire the lady for having a name that sounds like a 70s dessert, I have to disagree.

The thing that the techno-killjoys always seem to neatly overlook is that while we’re supposedly being antisocial by treating our smartphones like extra limbs, what we’re actually doing is being MORE social, by means of those smartphones.  If I temporarily absent myself from some tedious dinner chat in order to take a photo of my meal, tweet it, upload it to Pinterest, blog about its relative merits and take part in a hashtag game called #dinnerfilms, am I not in fact widening my social horizons rather than stunting them?

Likewise, (and I have had this exact conversation with my father), despairing because you’ve got no phone signal for an afternoon doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a lonely, addicted web cretin – you just want to reply to that tweet, and text that friend and organise that dinner date within a reasonable timeframe. Which is GOOD manners, surely?

What articles like these are really objecting to, of course, is rudeness. This I can get on board with. I hate rudeness. But rudeness is a different thing to breaking flimsy, unspoken rules that nobody has agreed on in the first place. As with so many things in life – rice pudding, disco dancing, wearing corduroy – it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. A rude person will always be a rude person, whether they’re touting an Android tablet or an abacus (to add up their rounded-down contribution to the bill).

Assuming the role of Emily Post-Millennium for a second, I’d propose that a polite, “I’m sorry, would you mind if I quickly reply to this text?” is more than sufficient cover for a quick bit of at-table phone action. Asking yourself, ‘is this status update really necessary during a dinner/meeting/funeral?’ should be enough to establish whether you’re just really connected, or really a bit of a tool. No. Technology came to make us friends, not lose them. And I put it to you that if the Victorians didn’t spend mealtimes secretly texting under the table, that’s only because it hadn’t been invented yet.

The third thing that happened, by the way, is that I got my first iPhone. Can you tell?