Are people being rude?

Posted: Apr 08, 2002 12:00 AM
Do you have e-mail? Do you have a telephone-answering device? I ask because I am intrigued by an observation recently heard.

Proposition One: If you don't have a telephone-answering facility, you are just plain rude. Not intentionally, but de facto.

Proposition Two: If you don't have e-mail, you are being a premature Luddite.

Full-grown Luddites reject e-mail facilities because they reject the whole idea of technological advances. They reject them not as the original Luddites rejected invention: The British agricultural workers tore up textile labor-saving devices on the grounds that they caused unemployment. A premature Luddite is not someone who rejects inventions per se, but someone who doesn't get around to exploring their usefulness and lets them pass by his/her life, simply unnoticed.

But begin with the telephone, because the absence of message recorders is, indeed, an act of incivility. The narrative here is pretty plain. If you are calling somebody who isn't home, the burden of having to call again and -- sometimes -- again and again because a recording wasn't at hand to advise that she was away until the end of the month makes your burden unnecessary, annoying and even cruel. The Postal Service has a neat way of handling people who don't affix a return address on their mail -- their letters are stuck in a Dead Letter Office.

When dealing with telephones, a diplomatic question is posed. If you are calling Alice to tell her that her house is on fire, the consequences of her inattention are pretty emphatic. If you are calling to say that you can't be there for the bridge game tomorrow, either you have to keep calling until she answers, or she will find herself responsible for the empty chair.

That's when the call-ee suffers from the failure to provide a facility for leaving messages. If the caller is ringing to wish someone a happy birthday, the frustration is that of the initiator. He has either to call again later, or run the risk of forgetting to do so; and the party of the second part is someone whose day might otherwise have been brightened. If the Emily Post people haven't gotten around to listing an answering machine as a social obligation, they are derelict, and should be -- called. Classify this column as one such a call.

Now the e-mail business is trickier. If a person is simply determined not to sign on to e-mail, it's probably that he/she is refusing to use a computer. Now a lot of people are simply afraid of computers. They fear that technical problems will overwhelm them. They don't know how to touch-type, and their hunt-peck is irresolute. And anyway, you have to plug things in, and you have to move arrows around the screen, and you have to remember to push that button, not the other, and you know that halfway through, your letter will suddenly vanish from the screen -- and the hell with it.

There isn't much one can do about the deprived, except perhaps call them on the phone and stroke them. But there are other species, which we call The Defiant. It may stretch the imagination, but it is true that a hundred years ago there were people who would not step foot in an automobile, whether from fright or rejection. And of course there are those who even now will not fly.

But the social implications of e-mail aren't given due notice. Those who use e-mail know instantly what is meant by this. The ability to call up a name, bat out a sentence or two, dispatch the message free of charge, send copies to one or more friends or associates, is a facility for the user that is hard to overestimate and thoughtless to disdain.

What about the prospective recipient? If you know that 20 people are going to write you one or more times in the course of a year, is it not benevolent to make their act easier? The postal mailbox (an invention of Anthony Trollope) was a painkiller, a contrivance that diminished a labor of life, the daily trip to the post office. Doesn't it follow that e-mail diminishes the menial side of correspondence? Think how many more letters Abigail Adams might have written, how much more time saved, if she and her friends had had access to e-mail.

Such objections as that e-mail makes you liable to unwelcome intrusions (in the trade they call these "spam") are phony. The mailbox can bring you 20 unwelcome objects for every one you want to read. It is much more cumbersome to open, glance at, and throw away a piece of unwanted mail than to extinguish life on the screen -- zip! zap! It's gone!

Well, granted there is a lot of road noise in modern technology. Yet every now and then we should doff our hats to it. Herewith mine.