Thursday, May 13, 2010

Will Cell Phone Etiquette Break Down Class Barriers?

Paige and I were just talking about cell phone etiquette, and I wondered about something: Because cell phones are becoming so ubiquitous, as we develop a common sense of propriety about the use of this technology, is it possible we'll see a divide that transcends class divisions? Historically, as manners have developed, they've done so across class lines. Words that were considered acceptable ("shit" as the common term for manure, for example) were rejected by people who sought to establish themselves as refined aristocrats. Aspiring middle class people tried to emulate the behavior of the wealthy. Lower class people were left with behavior and language deemed "trashy" precisely because it identified them as poor. However, when it comes to cell phones, I can easily see a different divide coming into play.

Wealthy, powerful people will divide amongst themselves between neo-luddites who crave more traditional human interaction and business elites who need to stay in constant contact with clients, need to manage investments, need to close deals, etc. Those who reject this plugged-in lifestyle will vary from the "off-the-grid" extremists to those who sneer at people who text in restaurants or talk on the phone in line at the grocery store, but they will share some common skepticism of the merits of the permanently plugged-in lifestyle.

The aspirational middle class might emulate both sets of behaviors in distinct camps. Amongst the poor, some might try to take ownership of their poverty by adopting a bohemian air and emulating the neo-luddite resistance to constant connectedness, while other poor people will see the wired world as a means to alleviate their poverty.

This could lead to cultural symptoms like shared language which transcend class barriers. For example, if a text catchphrase takes off among the constantly connected, it might be rejected by those who hold that dependence on connectedness in disdain. The same might be true of those who reject the constant connectedness, though they are less likely to adopt similar speech patters and behavioral ticks as quickly precisely because they reject the technology that makes such rapid communication so easy.

I don't foresee half the population tootling around in flying cars, whizzing past the other half in covered wagons and Amish fashions. Still, it will be interesting and possibly even socially transformative to divorce the idea of manners from the idea of wealth. Personally, I look forward to the day when a poor person will see a rich person talking on his phone during a dinner date and will call the behavior "trashy" without any thought about how much money is in the rude guy's bank account. I was raised to believe that good manners were unrelated to money (thanks to my grandparents who passed that lesson on to my parents), and maybe the common denominator of the cell phone will make good manners available to everyone, just as they are making bad cell phone etiquette a nearly universal phenomenon.

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