Monday July 18, 2011
DISENGAGED: How many times have we been guilty of the same thing?
WE HAVE seen it all. The girl who keeps bumping into people while texting; that man shouting over his cellphone in a crowded place; and the kid next to you with his portable device blaring.
Groan. How rude.
But wait. Haven’t we ourselves been guilty of these offences at some time or other? Or worse, we have been texting while driving and burying our noses in our smartphones in the presence of family members or guests at the dinner table.
Admit it. Everyone is guilty of not minding their mobile manners.
According to Genevieve Bell, head of chipmaker Intel Corp’s research lab that studies human behaviour in relation to technology, it is quite normal to make such mistakes.
“It is fairly new technology and we’re all still trying to figure out how to properly conduct ourselves when using these devices,” she told Bytz.
Bell said our clumsy relationships with new technology is perennial. Society behaved the same way when television first appeared in our lives circa 1970, and it was the epitome of consumer technology then.
Questions involving impropriety immediately surrounded it. Should it be switched off when you have guests? Is it rude to eat in front of the TV?
“We don’t ask these questions anymore because television has become an integral part of our lives,” Bell said. Now, we are trying to figure out how mobile technology will fit into our lives.
So the questions have started. Is it rude to have mobile phones on the dinner table? What about during lunch or meetings? Should you be texting while having a conversation with someone?
It would be impolite to do any of these, said Bell, in case anyone’s wondering. And this applies to portable game consoles and Tablet computers as well.
Mobile technology has been around for about 20 years, and while society is still trying to figure out its relationship with some of these devices, the rules have been relaxed in a few instances.
For example, society doesn’t mind you putting your handphone on a coffeeshop table or answering a phone call in such places. However, many people would expect you to speak softly in such situations, as you would during a polite dinner conversation.
Others, however, would prefer you didn’t take a call on the cellphone so close to them, like when in a restaurant. The correct thing to do would be to step outside the premises and take the call.
And another common pet peeve is those mobile phone users who insist on taking calls and texting inside a cinema or cineplex when the movie is being screened. Big no-no, this one.
“Actually, it all boils down to using common sense when figuring out the do’s and dont’s,” said Bell.
So why do we still behave badly with our mobile devices?
“Well, there’s always tension between cultural ideal and cultural practice,” she explained. “We know what the right behaviour is, we know what we should be doing, but we’re human, we don’t always manage these things well.”
Bell believes that most people don’t mean to be rude with their mobile devices, but we live in a complicated world where many things demand our attention and sometimes we don’t realise how badly we are behaving because we’re too occupied.
“We put too many demands on ourselves achieving our life goals, or we are enjoying our new toy so much that we become obsessed with it and forget to be mindful of others.
“I don’t think being respectful of others is difficult, but there are times when we forget or it doesn’t seem to be more important than what we are doing,” Bell said.
It is also important not to beat yourself up too much because you caught yourself misbehaving, such as allowing your mobile phone to ring when it shouldn’t.
Just tell yourself to do better next time, and making appropriate use of the mute button will become a good habit.
What’s we should really be worried about is when bad mobile etiquette poses a danger to ourselves or to others. These are moments like texting or using your Tablet while driving.
It’s also not safe to be too involved in your smartphone or other portable devices in train stations and similar places where you need to pay attention to your surroundings.
These can end very badly, even in someone’s death, but we see it happening all the time.
Fortunately, bad etiquette usually only results in angry people. “I watched a girl get herself into tremendous trouble at a hawker centre because she kept knocking into people while texting,” said Bell.
“They all gave her disgusted looks and were probably thinking ‘What are you doing? Please stop that!’ ”
Etiquette, is about making everyone feel comfortable. In other words, treat others the way you would like to be treated, Bell said.
“Always be mindful of what’s around you because you don’t want to be making the world an uncomfortable place for other people,” she said.
“You can also expect other people to mind their mobile manners, and if they don’t, you can politely remind them. Also remember to reward them if they comply, by thanking them.
“But be sure to practise what you preach. After all, there is no point telling others to not shout into the phone when we are guilty of the same offence.”
And whenever you have to interrupt a conversation because you have to make a call or your phone is ringing, the polite thing to do would be to say “I am sorry but I have to make this call” or “I have to take this call but can we continue this conversation afterwards?”
Bell said she has noticed that society is finding ways to encourage better mobile etiquette, and is doing so in a very interesting and subtle manner.
For example, one of the ways the older generation shows discontent at mobile devices being used at the dining table is by simply asking “What are you doing?”
“I’ve seen matriarchs do this with young children when they are too engrossed in a game on handheld consoles and bring the devices to the table.
“What they are doing is politely reminding the children that it’s time to eat and engage in conversation with others, not play with their electronic devices.”
Bell also remembers a church in South Korea that has a series of signs to remind the congregation that the shrill ring of a mobile phone is not welcome in this house of worship.
The first sign said: “Turn off your phone and listen to the call of God.” The second said: “It would be a blessing if you turned off your phone.” And the third said: “We have a cell site dampener.”
Others can be more direct, according to Bell. There was one incident in London where a stage actor demanded a member of the audience surrender his cellphone or leave the auditorium after it rang during the performance.
In Britain, there are also “quiet coaches” on trains for people who don’t want to put up with loud mobile-phone conversations or beeping game-devices.
“When someone absent-mindedly carries on a conversation via his or her cellphone in this carriage, they can be reminded that ‘This is the quiet carriage,’ which prompts them to end the conversation or leave,” Bell said.
There are also advertisements in cinemas in the United States that remind audiences to not use their devices in the hall. A telco has started similar advertisements in Malaysia.
Take time off
Another thing that might help with improving our mobile manners is probably to take some time away from it and truly enjoy the smell of coffee – so to speak – from time to time.
“We must take moments of downtime to recharge, think, reflect and be mindful of others,” Bell said.
She said technology has made life easier and facilitated our work processes but human beings are the ones controlling it, “and we function better when we are unplugged from time to time.”
This downtime is important cognitively, physically and intellectually and it is during these times that creativity is sparked.
This is really an age-old method, Bell said. “Our forefathers carved out time to recharge either through meditation or prayer.
“This lack of downtime could also be a reason for the love-hate relationship that society has with technology.
“But this doesn’t mean we should start burning our mobile devices. Instead, we should try to strike to balance between our devices and the other parts of our lives,” she said.
Much of Bell’s studies will help Intel better understand society’s relationship with technology so that it and device manufacturers can think about what the next-generation technology will be.
“Studying mobile manners and etiquette is another way of understanding people. That is how we build new technology and help drive the innovation process,” she said.
People need reminding that the world is bigger than their Tablet or cellphone screens. In the Middle East, there are phones that automatically switch off during prayer times, which are very popular over there.
Bell said Intel wants to create more of such technologies to help society strike a better balance between life and machine. “For this, we will need a clear understanding of people, in relation to how technology is used and tolerated,” she added.
In the meantime, let’s all please make the effort to mind our mobile manners.