On the day the snow arrived in Toronto a week ago, glassing the sidewalks and trimming the city, the strangest thing happened: People stopped looking at their phones. They were afraid of falling over. I had four actual conversations teetering (ever so delicately) to the overshoe store. I didn't see people sitting side by side in the front seats of their cars, lingering in much-wanted parking spots as they sombrely checked their messages. (Why do people checking their messages always look so grave?) The snow was a small miracle, as if we'd all been cured for a day of our instrument fixation.
No lane blockers pulled over to the side of busy downtown streets responding to texts, because driving was suddenly dangerous all on its own. No loud talkers shouting over street noise on their phones and then continuing at top volume off the phone. (It happens constantly. The average decibel level of face-to-face conversation has to have doubled.) No Grindr and Tinder fiends stopping mid-sidewalk and reversing direction like remote-controlled robots.
None of the techno-rudeness, in other words, that has become an acceptable part of device-tethered life in the superdense city. And once it wasn't there, I saw how often it is, and how rude we've become, and how close to permanently oblivious we are. For a day, in the snow and cold, we were allowed to live outside the little box.
According to recent surveys, the average North American spends up to 2 1/2 hours a day on some hand-held device, and checks it 110 times. That's nearly 38 days a year – about eight years, over a lifetime. Pause here for astonishment.
Is it any wonder we're less adept at dealing with one another, face to face and mano a mano? That, having abandoned the pleasures and terrors of physical human contact for the convenience of the virtual connect, we are more inept and ruder in person?
Distracted-driving accidents are up in Toronto, as are collisions with earphoned pedestrians – often avoidable, therefore rude as well as stupid. The inventors of Uber, the online taxi service, threaten investors and reporters alike. But it's not just them. It's you, and it's certainly me. We've embraced self-centred online life and forgotten the Golden Rule. We tell ourselves personal technology is a personal matter, a private world of our own. I feel compelled to point out the obvious: It's not. A few examples of the most common forms of techno-rudeness we now accept without blinking, canvassed from acquaintances across the land (because it's not just limited to Toronto), just in time for the joyous holiday season:
The most widespread and unforgivable crassness of all: Texting and messaging on a phone while talking to someone, face to face. A favourite of bosses, hence its nickname, boss pose. "In a meeting," a female Toronto executive explains, "if I'm the senior boss in the room, I can message on my cell. Whereas if I am in a meeting with my boss, I would never go on my phone, even though he can be on his."
Millennials and Gen-Xers are particularly hard-core on this one and insist the rest of us should get over being offended. But the message, no matter how you rationalize it, is undeniable: You, my friend/lover/husband/pal/employee/child, are less important than whatever is happening on my device. "It's not that younger generations are ruder than we are," a Montreal-born baby boomer said to me recently. "They just have a different code of manners. They're not selfish. They just don't think of others that much. Their default is 'me and my phone.'"
Walking smack into people on the street/in the supermarket while texting/messaging, head down, on your device. We have all done this, too. Made worse by saying "No worries!" instead of apologizing after you sever someone's Achilles tendon with your grocery cart. Closely related to the guy stalled mid-aisle and intoning "I got the pabulum, what else do we need?" into your mobile unit, you moron. Also related, a Manhattan business type explains, to "texting while coming out of the subway, and then slowing down as you get to the exit. Because no one actually knows where they're going. They're living moment to moment, as you do on the phone, and relying on MapQuest." He pauses. "It's the lack of planning that offends me." In the ancient predigital world, life required modesty and forethought, or at the very least a list. Not any more.
"The other thing that offends me," the Manhattanite continues, "is when I ask someone, 'How do I do this or that on my phone?' And rather than explain it and show me, so I can do it on my own the next time, they grab the phone out of your hands and do it for you." There are two culprits here: the diminished respect for personal space that afflicts people who live à la mobile, and technology's speed, which induces a generalized impatience. Digital technology has reinvented the superiority complex.
Speaking of earphones, they're responsible for at least two kinds of social vulgarity. "Talking loudly on a headset while using a laptop in Starbucks surrounded by Post-It-covered notebooks and half-eaten lemon loaf" is one, a Toronto writer friend told me the other day. It's the offspring of an earlier form of obliviousness, she continued. "Drivers who turn their vehicles into quadraphonic megaspeakers, broadcasting music with organ-crushing bass notes while wearing a deadpan expression at the wheel. It's the noise pollution combined with the 'I'm not really doing this' expression that gets me." A corollary offender is the fellow wearing earbuds turned up so high that, while you can't actually hear his music, you could be forgiven for thinking locusts on crystal meth have eaten into your brain casing. CHI-chi-CHI-chi-CHI-chi-CHI-chi CHI-CHI-CHI-CHI-CHI!
Alas, the downward etiquette spiral created by portable personal technology isn't limited to using our contraptions: The supreme convenience of the entire world at our fingers has produced an all-encompassing sense of human entitlement as well. The novelist Hugh MacLennan believed the railway changed the way Canadians experienced the landscape by speeding up our sense of time. The smartphone is permanently shrinking the value we place on the presence of others.
And no, I don't think I'm exaggerating. Observe, for instance, the Stroller Hog. We're in Toronto on Bloor Street, at Bay, right in the middle of all that luxury, on a busy Saturday, just before lunch. The street is teeming. Suddenly, a fashionable woman appears (on her phone, natch) in a quilted Arc'teryx jacket and leggings. She is pushing a $600 Britax B-Ready stroller. Tell me you have not seen this woman. The sidewalk is theoretically wide enough for four such strollers, but Nouvelle Grande Maman, chatting and texting away, is occupying centre aisle and then some, and then some more, and does not alter her majestic course. All she's missing is a couple of tugboats to nudge her along like the Royal Barge on Exhibition Sunday. Laden as you are with only a dog and three shopping bags and a 100-pound sack of mulch and some dry cleaning, or perhaps a lame nonagenarian on your arm, and being 20 years her senior, and because she is a new mother, and undoubtedly exhausted from her divine purpose of raising the Holy Teeny One to a state of unimpeachable perfection, you step to the outside of the sidewalk (no thoughtful person would go to the inside, exposing her and the little one to splashing or swerving cars). Does she say thank you, as you topple off the sidewalk into the onrushing traffic? She does not. Ever. Because if you can be front and centre online, why not offline and everywhere else?
But the most pernicious effect of technological entitlement upon our manners, if you ask me, is the way it has encouraged the crass monetization of everyday life. Here's a real-life example: At a popular barbecue joint in the hipster Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale, a 50-ish man in a tie and jacket (clearly not this reporter) is shown to one of the restaurant's communal picnic tables and seated next to a couple in their 20s, both with phones a-ready. The older man suddenly realizes he's left his own phone in his car, and asks the young couple if they'll watch his knapsack for two minutes. (Yes, I know: a 50-year-old with a knapsack. It's unseemly. Whatever happened to the briefcase?)
The young woman eyes him, and says, "Well, I guess if you buy us a drink."
"Gee," the older guy says, "this town has changed!" But he buys the couple a brace of cocktails anyway. Two minutes later he's back, phone in hand, and goes about his texty business. But he can't hold his tongue. "You know," he finally says to the young extortionist across the table, "you should be ashamed to ask for money for a common courtesy."
The young woman is unapologetic. "I was being ironic, obviously," she says, doubling down on sass. "But why should people wait on you for free? Because you're wearing a tie and have money?"
She can have such opinions online, where she doesn't have to face the consequences of her rudeness; why not in person? (At least, I presume this is her rationale.) The young woman should be writhing in shame at the memory of her ruthless behaviour, but I doubt she is.
"Rules of conduct have taken hundreds of years to develop," the Manhattanite says wistfully, upon hearing this story. "Shaking hands, looking someone in the eye, listening attentively to a conversation, even the Golden Rule, are the distillation of thousands of years of human interaction. But now we live with this technology, which is brand new. So we have to relearn everything. My cellphone rings while I'm talking to someone, I have to answer it! Well, why?"
I realize how old-fashioned all this sounds – how cranky, how octo, how stolid. Why not live and let live in the ultrapresent moment like everyone else, and just get out of the way? It's the height of laziness to deplore the present, as Martin Amis once noted. But it's not conformity I'm after, or a bigger serving of respect, or a ban on personal tech (it's never going away, and I don't want it to), or even more seasonal bonhomie. I would just like to believe that we could remember to connect while our technology drives us further into and further away from ourselves. Manners are a solution, in that regard. Manners, for instance, make it easier to believe in the possibility of unrewarded human decency, especially in a massive city and a technology-driven economy that otherwise moves too fast to pay attention to such niceties.
That is the point of a common courtesy, after all: It's free. It can be proffered to someone you have never met at no expense to your private well-being, even in the self-obsessed age of the engineers. It cost that young woman nothing to watch the aging dude's bag. She should have passed the gift along. Maybe next time, if it's snowing.