The Metro does not approve
Something interesting happened the other night. Out for a low-key evening with a good friend, we were enjoying drinks when, during a lull in conversation, I heard the text message sound. Making a quick, polite apology, as I saw it was from a family member at an unusual hour, I checked it. She proceeded to do the same with her own phone. After about a minute, the phones went away and conversation continued without a hitch.
No one was offended, and later it occurred to me that I'd seen this process before: there's a socially convenient opening for someone to check their phone, and everyone else in the gathering then does the same. It had amused me as an example of human crowd behavior on a micro-scale.
But it's also an adaptation. Something new and useful comes in — in this case technology that leaves people connected even when out of their homes — that collides with some existing thing people also find important. In this case, that's the need for relatively undivided attention during social time, backed by a widespread perception that intrusions upon that are impolite.
For awhile, the collision is uncomfortable, because the existing social rules don't really have any way to accommodate the new intrusion. While scolding diatribes heralding a new era of vulgarity are inevitable when this sort of collision happens, the new development's here to stay, for the very reason it became an intrusion in the first place: it's useful to enough to become widespread.
This state of flux will often result in some fairly rude bullshit and some angry (even appropriate) backlash, like in the following situation:
So what happens? As with the phone breaks, after much awkwardness, arguments and occasional phone smashing, the rules shift to accommodate. After awhile, social circles develop something like the phone breaks I just described, accepting a greater deal of connectivity than before with some preservation of existing etiquette (i.e. not just any call/SMS is worth breaking conversation for, an "excuse me" is expected). The solutions spread or people end up coming up with largely similar ones on their own. There will still be environments, like movie theaters, where using the new inventions is perceived as completely unacceptable.
This is one reason why I'm often loath to believe statements like Google is making us stupid or cellphones are destroying all politeness. Social fabrics tend to be pretty damn resilient over the long run, and instead of widespread cultural destruction, what usually happens is some broadly acceptable compromise.
Cultures experience some very real, radical changes and the fact that there are a multitude of new devices and shakeups assailing us at once is one of the reasons for this blog's title, but small things like this remind me of how adaptive humans are, and often in the right direction.