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TELEPHONE COURTESIES EXTEND TO THE MACHINES

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We have eliminated the telephone from modern life. Have you noticed?

Perhaps not. There are all those instruments around, not only on walls and tables but being snappily unfolded from briefcases and pockets. And people seem to be talking on them.Don't be fooled. Nobody is actually reaching anyone else on the telephone. They are all just trying to find out when other people might be available, in offices as well as homes. What used to be telephones are now just elaborate message-exchanging devices.

Miss Manners is not complaining. On the contrary: She feels vindicated. All these years - roughly from the time dear Mr. Bell explained the thing to her and she stopped cupping her ear and saying, "What?" - Miss Manners has been pointing out the flaw in the concept of the telephone.

The flaw is that while everybody would like to be able to have instant access to everybody else, nobody wants to live on constant alert. Miss Manners is used to such contradictions. Her whole field of etiquette is one that nobody wants to practice, but everybody wants others to practice.

Nevertheless, Miss Manners admits that she is puzzled about why people go to such trouble and expense to purchase the equipment with which to enable others to reach them at all times and places. Do they like being interrupted in the middle of breakthrough ideas, vacations, strategy sessions, baths, drives and romances?

Well, no. This is why they also buy answering machines, install voice mail and attach gadgets that enable them to tell who is calling so that they do not have to answer the telephone. And, if someone does manage to catch them, they now have that vile Call Waiting as an escape.

Now that everybody has all that stuff, we have reached an impasse. When it is all working properly, people who make telephone calls reach only recorded messages and recording devices; those who call them back encounter the same treatment. We are just where we would have been if nobody had a telephone.

Fortunately, other means of communication have sprung up to take the telephone's place. The combination of electronics and the written, rather than spoken, word - fax machines and e-mail - strike Miss Manners as an advance in civilization. They give the recipient of the message a choice about when to consider it, without keeping the sender hanging about until that happens.

As a replacement, they would also relieve Miss Manners from the necessity of arbitrating between those who want to reach others by telephone and those who want to avoid being reached. But until that happens, she feels obliged to keep up with problems in telephone accessory etiquette.

A Gentle Reader inquires whether she is obligated to return messages left on her machine. "Is it any different if they leave a message with my husband?" Yes, it is different. It is not nice to blame one's husband, but the machine can take the insult.

A worker whose tasks include transcribing the office voice mail messages happily reports that most people include "please" and "thank you" in their messages. Miss Manners, too, is elated that these people manage to keep in mind that the recording device will eventually transmit the message to a human being, who will be grateful for such courtesies.

A lawyer who uses Caller I.D. to return the calls of people who hang up without leaving messages - for example, the elderly lady who had his number programmed into her telephone and suffered repeated disappointment that her daughter never answered - seeks confirmation that this is polite. It sounds eminently sensible and helpful to Miss Manners, and if there is an impertinence in returning the call of someone who called oneself, she cannot discover it.

And finally, a Gentle Reader gently advances a new argument in favor of Call Waiting:

"Consider the similar situation where, let's say, you've settled down in your drawing room for a chat with an old friend. There is a knock at the front door. This is the butler's half-day off, the parlor maid has left without proper notice, and the upstairs maid is both upstairs and stone deaf.

"What do you do about that knocker at the threshold, who might be your husband who has forgotten his key, the man from the IRS, a child who has no key, someone desperately needing medical attention, or, indeed, a salesperson, but that's the chance we all take?"

This is a nice try, but Miss Manners refuses to admit the door-knocking comparison - she has never advocated ignoring one live human being for another.

Dear Miss Manners: One of the most amazing - annoying - things people do to their friends is to put, in the envelope with an invitation, dozens of little glittery paper stars and other shapes. Almost inevitably, these pesky things find their way all over the place. It is a big nuisance to brush, sweep or vacuum them up.

We started to enclose a few dozen of these offending "ornaments" for identification, but did not have the heart to do so; besides, we feel sure you know what we are talking about.

Please dissuade people from use of these "cute" little pests.

Gentle Reader: Yes, yes, yes! Miss Manners recognizes a threat when she hears one, and she is immediately succumbing to this one. She certainly doesn't want any of those nasties stuck to her rug, and she can't imagine that anyone else does, either.

But this is such a hospitably intended menace. The hosts want to spread merriment, which is not an impulse Miss Manners wishes to discourage in this grim world.

They must just learn to confine the festivity to the scene of their parties.