Bill Murchison

While Congress labors and sweats over health care reform, let us turn to larger matters, pertaining to the ways we live together. Pertaining, specifically, to the question of what you do when you notice someone Twittering or Blackberrying in your presence rather than according you the attention you rightly deserve.

Do you shout, stomp, throw a water glass, or just sigh and accept the implied insult to your humanity, sad in the knowledge that Progress has deal another blow to civilization.

Probably the latter is what you do, according to a recent New York Times report.

Yes, probably so. Manners don't seem to matter much these days. The Times says more than a third of 5,300 workers polled recently by Yahoo "said they frequently checked e-mail in meetings." Meanwhile, "the etiquette debate seems to be tilting in favor of Smartphone use, many executives said." Because, well, you know, when someone needs you, he needs you right now -- this instant.

Who was the correspondent at the presidential press conference a month or two who, after his cell phone rang -- not vibrated, rang -- left the room to take the call? A very "now" thing to do -- thumb your nose, figuratively speaking, at everyone with a different impression of your importance to the future of humanity.

Some people don't know better. In some of the university classes I taught several years ago were nice kids who thought it was fine to bring hot food into the classroom, or even to fall into the embrace of Morpheus, with heads resting on folded arms, totally tuned out from the rest of us. Well, it wasn't fine, as I had to assure them for their own benefit as well as the class.

The laws of civility have ever changed as the calendar flipped from page to page, era to era. I don't see -- alas! -- many men opening car doors for ladies these days, or taking off their caps in the house, as society once rigorously schooled us to do. Call that, if you like, the natural consequence of the women's equality movement, which tended to see male manners as soft oppression. The larger point here is that generally, for hundreds of years, there seemed to be codes that differentiated personal needs from the needs of others, and accordingly put some kindly emphasis on observance of the latter.

A lout who Blackberries his way through a meeting, a class, or any other kind of public occasion, is saying essentially to others there, "Hey -- I'll decide how much of my attention you need and deserve. What I give you, that's what you need, no more, no less. Get over it."

Bill Murchison

Bill Murchison is the former senior columns writer for The Dallas Morning News and author of There's More to Life Than Politics.
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