x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Courtesy and conversation flounder in smartphone age

While mobiles and tablets are designed to enhance global communication, they are undermining basic human interaction and common good manners.

Summer in the UK is usually the silly season for news, a period when, for a few short weeks, national and international affairs give way to more prosaic events.

Headlines of late have included such world shattering events as "Whitstable mum in custard shortage", "Wife in exploding potato drama", and surely the best ever, "Kidderminster pet shop phases out rabbit muesli ..."

There has been one issue however, which, while undoubtedly prosaic, has thrown a harsh spotlight on modern manners.

A checkout assistant working at a branch of one of the country's most popular supermarket chains refused to serve a female customer this week until the woman stopped talking on her mobile phone.

The shopper, Jo Clarke of Croydon, had apparently been engaged in animated dialogue while unloading her groceries at the checkout, a conversation that not only occupied her full attention but which gave everyone within a 50-yard radius an ear-splitting insight into her domestic affairs.

This sort of casual disrespect is an occupational hazard for anyone who works in the service industries. Where once they might have expected a friendly smile and a polite inquiry as their health, nowadays everyone's so busy texting, making calls and emailing that they're lucky if they get anything more than a grunt by way of acknowledgement.

Not so this unnamed cashier, who refused to assist Ms Clarke until she ended her call ("Hang up or I won't serve you" were her actual words.) Ms Clarke made a complaint against the store and was subsequently offered a £10 (Dh55) voucher by way of compensation, along with a grovelling apology from head office.

Yet the incident has provoked fierce reaction, with many hailing the cashier's demand for a bit of common courtesy, and castigating the supermarket bosses for not having the courage to back her up.

This episode may sound trivial, but it is surely a sign of a deeper malaise in society. Nowadays it often seems as if we're all living in a virtual world, one in which human interaction is of secondary importance.

Any day of the week on London's streets you can see poor souls who have come under the thrall of instant communication, phones clamped to their ears or furiously jabbing at their screens with their forefinger, as if overwhelmed by an obsessive compulsive disorder. Indeed, so oblivious are they to the world around them that one wag has suggested the capital's lampposts be swathed in foam rubber to prevent head injuries.

On the roads the situation is even more dangerous, with some surveys ascribing the increasing death rate among under-25s to "distracted driving": namely the practice of using mobile phones while at the wheel.

Even my own profession, the theatre, is not immune. You might think a dark auditorium would be one place that might be safe from the curse of instant electronic gratification, yet barely a performance goes by these days without the muffled tone of a rogue mobile going off or the eerie gleam of a phone screen appearing as someone checks their messages.

The few places in London where using a phone is either impossible or prohibited are, by contrast, regarded as havens of tranquillity. On London underground trains, for instance, which far from the cacophonous contraptions they once seemed, are now the only places where people can get a bit of peace and quiet.

But of course, this sort of thing won't do at all; not in a modern world, where time is money and where instant communication is considered a basic human right. And so Transport for London is spending millions of pounds installing mobile connectivity on its underground rail network.

The ultimate irony is that while mobiles and tablets are designed to enhance global communication, they are also undermining basic human interaction and common good manners. The result is a society that is becoming both more insular and less courteous.

Still, you can learn a lot from hearing someone talk on a mobile. My favourite instance occurred recently to an actor friend of mine. While performing onstage in a new drama one night, he heard the sound of a muffled ringtone from somewhere in the stalls, followed by its owner answering the call with the whispered words: "I can't talk now, I'm watching a play."

After a brief but exquisite pause she continued: "No, not very …"


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London. His new book, The Rules of Acting, is out now