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Tech Etiquette: Why Manners Still Matter

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
April 8, 2013 Deadline
May 2013 Issue

Tech Etiquette: Why Manners Still Matter

As my wife and I watched the actors on stage, the woman sitting beside me raised her iPad and started to record the performance. She waved the iPad, aiming around and above the people sitting in the row below us. I dodged her elbows and tried to ignore this breach of etiquette as best I could.

When you attend a live event, unless it is your child’s play or recital, do not try to record the performance with a phone or tablet. The devices are not inconspicuous. A handheld video camera might be small and (slightly) less annoying to other audience members, and I’d still prefer that nobody have one in the audience.

Community and college theater companies often record their performances. If you ask, many schools and community groups will make copies of their recordings. Yet, I counted at least a dozen people trying to capture video on phones and tablets during the night. I’m planning to mention this to the artistic director. Maybe in the future the theater can offer video for download at a minimal price – a good way to raise money.

The tablet screen resembles television. If I wanted to see the play on television, I’d watch at home. Lower the tablet and let others enjoy the special nature of live events.

Technology gives us the illusion of being social. Sharing a video of a live performance tells your hundreds of “friends” that you were there. Apparently, that’s more important to some individuals than enjoying the moment. You can always reflect on the experience later, and probably with greater insight.

During intermission, the lobby of the theater was lit by fake candles and phone screens. Of the two, the phone screens generated more light. At least most of the patrons waited for intermission to post status updates to Facebook and Twitter. Maybe there was a hashtag for the performance, connecting all the theatergoers in the Twitterverse. If I didn’t Tweet it, was I really a part of the event?

In our self-contained entertainment universes, we have forgotten about the other people our choices affect. It is possible that I am a curmudgeon, a grumpy old man about to tell the neighborhood kids to stay off my lawn. But, I believe the lack of tech etiquette reflects a serious problem in our society.

It was several minutes into the second act before the visible glow of screens faded inside the theater. I always thought it was silly to have signs posted that ask people to turn off electronic devices in a theater. I was wrong. Apparently, people do need to be reminded of basic etiquette.


Before attending the play, we took a walk downtown. I wanted a fresh pastry from the local bakery. As we passed the big chain coffee house, a man was yelling loudly. Once we were closer, I realized he was talking to someone standing only a few feet away from him. He was yelling because he was wearing headphones. Stranger still, I could hear the music leaking through the full-ear padding of the retro headphones.

Wouldn’t most of us remove headphones when trying to have a conversation? At the very least, pause the music, right? Instead, “yelling man” was sharing his music along with his conversation.

I’ve grown accustomed to people sharing their music with the world. When we take walks around the local park, most walkers, joggers and runners are listening to portable devices. It is astonishing how powerful little ear-bud speakers can be.

A couple of years ago while riding a city bus, I asked a young man to turn down his music.

“How can you even hear it, dude?” he asked.

“The entire bus can hear it,” I responded.

“No way!”

Maybe his hearing loss was already significant, but I am guessing he could not imagine what others were experiencing. He never considered that others could hear his music. Ear-buds, after all, are meant for privacy.

Loud music is a minor annoyance. Phone calls are worse.

People talk on their cellphones anywhere, about any intimate details of their lives. If you must share the details of your latest medical exam, send a text message. Not that texting is without risks, even when walking.

On campus, I’ve watched students collide with each other, trip over the small walls around flowerbeds and walk into closed glass doors. Texting while walking isn’t as dangerous as texting while driving, but it leads to some awkward encounters.

If you walk through a school cafeteria or food court, students are sitting together but staring down at screens. I’ve wondered if they are sending text messages to each other.

Last semester, a student asked to talk with me after class. While I was answering her questions about a complex assignment, her phone vibrated. Without so much as a pause, she looked down at the phone and started replying to a text message.

“You could reply after we’re done,” I suggested.

“No, that’s okay. My roommate’s asking where I am.”

The student’s reply to the text message was longer than some of her quiz answers.

Students have always ignored teachers, but at least it wasn’t so obvious. The next class session, I reminded all my students that you should give people your complete attention. At the very least, explain when you have a real emergency that demands a response. It turns out that college students don’t always know what constitutes a genuine emergency. We had a good discussion about the impulse to respond immediately to email, text messages and Facebook updates.

I love cellphones, tablets and laptop computers. It’s great to have access to the Web and email all the time, everywhere. But, we should also recognize when to disconnect and turn off the devices so we can interact with the people next to us.

How often have you seen people at a dinner table, texting or playing games on their phones? Maybe it isn’t rude if everyone is ignoring everyone else, yet it seems inappropriate to me.

Turn down the music, ignore the phone and stop trying to share events online as they happen. The sights and sounds around you might be interesting.

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