How the telephone and other modern technology snipped off our manners.
After Eats, Shoots and all her Peeves about bad punctuation in her first work, Lynne Truss’ latest vex is Rudeness. Her Talk to the Hand is chaptered into ‘Six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door’. So to figure out if this peeve-ist’s latest pique is worth it, I stayed home, as she suggested, to read. In ten minutes, the title fell apart. Despite bolted doors, people still bust in, disturbing your privacy. Beeping SMSes about ‘a golden chance to save electricity’, solicitations for a ‘weight loss belt’ and a telemarketer who wanted to offer ‘a bank loan’. After angrily shooting off a text to re-enlist on the do-not-disturb registry, one got this terse reply: ‘You are already registered’. In other words, bug off.
It’s precisely in that moment that you’re slung into Truss’ textual territory of disruptive telemarketers, queue-jumpers and invaders who turn private and public spaces into danger zones. Rudeness is now a global pandemic, more virulent than bird flu. With one critical difference. There’s no pharma major researching a blockbuster anti-rudeness pill that you can thrust into an abusive mouth. Verbal barbarism is loudly and clearly here to stay.
Truss, whose worldview is UK-centric, seems to have it easy. In Britain, she effetely announces ‘manners equals respecting someone’s right to be left alone’. In parts of India, women, and perhaps some men, would rather begin with the right to remain unmolested on buses, cars, streets, in police stations and within homes. To us, sitting close to cellphone yabberers equals peculiar safety, because the phone keeps one hand and their mind occupied… and off your body.
Truss lapses into scattered but entertaining instances of jangled nerves, culled from train travel and wrestling matches with automated switchboards. To add heft, she quotes from Erasmus and WB Yeats to The Simpsons (for pop-culture instances). But she doesn’t organise her argument. If she says each new technology pushed manners closer to extinction, we’d have liked to know why, starting with the landline down to the cellphone. Bell’s was the first invention that allowed us to ignore those before us, while speaking to someone who’s invisible. But how did each advancement turn us into unsocial animals? Her personal experience is as valid as ours; social science would’ve added insights, as author Nicholas Carr did in his simple and brilliantly-argued essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Her contribution is to remind us that, ultimately, manners are what transport us from savagery to self-restraint, making us conscious and sensitive to others. What she doesn’t address is the societal seething—that soul-crushing and bone-whittling moment when someone slaps a door in your face or grabs your seat, making you ‘aag babula’ (bubble with rage). Should you slice them apart with sarcasm or just bloody their nose and face? She doesn’t say. After finishing the book, unbolting the door and stepping on to the street, was I a better-mannered person? Hardly.