NPF: THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION

Sometimes I worry that I am turning into Andy Rooney as I get older, and twenty years from now ginandtacos.com is going to be beaming (directly into your brain stem, I assume) rants about how every time I open a bag of potato chips it's already half empty. What is the deal with that? Did I not pay for a whole bag, Lay's? AOL-Chrysler Lay's, a division of Citibank Grumman?

When I witness behaviors in public and social settings and conclude that society is going to hell on a greased shutter, my Andy Rooney fear seems well placed. Imagine an old man going on a rant about how kids are wearing baggy pants and don't say "sir" or "ma'am" anymore and the whole country's going to hell. When I feel myself drifting into that territory, I try not to share those feelings with the world.

Today we're going full Rooney.

Like many people it bothers me quite a bit when I am interacting with another person – face to face, not electronically – and they are glued to a spacephone. Texting, twittering, checking email, staring aimlessly at the internet, etc. It's not unreasonable to expect that when someone is trying to talk with you, you will, like, listen to them and maybe make some eye contact and respond and stuff. Don't ask me to lunch with you or to meet you at the bar tonight if all you plan on doing is staring at the internet. I can sit around alone at home and I don't need to go out and spend money for the privilege.

I think that's fair. I'm not being unnecessarily uptight on that point; if a person is speaking to you in a social setting, do not ignore them to start staring at Facebook. That isn't asking much.

Of course, the younger generation has no problem doing this, mostly because they are physically and emotionally incapable of NOT staring at the internet or texting, etc. for more than a few minutes at a time. And over time we see more and more people comfortable engaging in this kind of behavior. I'm picking on The Kids, but older people do it too (especially Very Important Business Types). We can agree that it's irritating but it's hardly worth blowing out of proportion, right?

Two incidents.

First, I was dining in a swank restaurant in February. A woman was on her cellphone and couldn't possibly hang up long enough to interact with a waiter (not to mention her dining companion). Yet she needed the waiter's services. Her solution was to loudly snap her fingers at him, not unlike one would do to a dog, and point at her plate to indicate that she wanted pepper on her salad.

Second, I had to spend that pointless day at the DMV getting a license and plates last fall. There was a large sign over the service counter stating that people would not be served unless they stopped talking on their cellphone when the reached the front of the line. I asked the kindly bureaucrat who served me if this sign was preemptive or if people actually expected to be served while yapping away on the phone. She assured me that people do exactly that all the time.

Look. We already have the regrettable tendency to treat other people like they are of no value whatsoever to us, especially strangers and/or people in the service industry. I'm not exactly a stickler for etiquette and I'm not going to complain that America's Goin' To Hell because we violate some rule from Emily Post about using the proper salad fork. But I think it's fair to be alarmed at our willingness to expect people to interact with us while we ignore them. I worry about that. I worry about what it says about our society and how little we care about anyone other than ourselves. I worry that our already waning interest in the people around us has entered some sort of death spiral.

That's straight Andy Rooney. I recognize it. But what the hell, people. When you can't be bothered to hang up or stop texting long enough to nod, smile, or perhaps speak to another human being, we have a problem. When you leave your house you accept an implicit social contract that requires you to respond to the presence of other people. You have to brake when they are in crosswalks, step around them on sidewalks, and speak to them when you need or want to interact with them. It's tough, I know, but nobody said life would be easy.

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52 Responses to “NPF: THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION”

  1. Bryan Says:

    There is a bright side to it, though: The people you’re complaining about tend to be the ones you least want to hear from.

  2. Dylan Says:

    That's some good stuff, Sir. I like the leaving the house premise. Same rules apply for Pajama wearin', BTW. No PJ's off the property(You can get the newspaper.)

  3. RT Butte Says:

    Hopefully, this is just the awkward transition phase before we move over to cybernetic implants, obviating the need for cellphones.

  4. Natalie Says:

    I think you are, as you admit, unfairly picking on young people. there are certainly many of us still, who are capable of not being on the internet for hours at a time (book reading perhaps? Ghasp!)

    I think the examples you sited are fair. I also think it's fair that, while I'm having a conversation at the bar I can check the text that just came in on my phone and then return to the conversation a few seconds later.

  5. Redleg Says:

    Almost every damn day I get behind some idiot in a line who is too important to hang up their cell phone in order to deal with the service person. Not only is this rude, as you said in your post, but it adds time to the transaction and therefore harms not only the server but the other customers waiting in line.

  6. joel hanes Says:

    What you need now is an onion for your belt.

  7. J. Dryden Says:

    You can't have a social contract with people who define 'society' as 'the names and letters and noises emitted from my hand-held electronics.' To say "Virtuality is the new reality" is awfully glib, but given the degree to which the need to remain connected via instant communication/reference has overpowered so many people suggests that maybe this is a battle that needs to be lost before it can be won. By which I mean–and I'm being wildly optimistic here–maybe we'll figure out that Facebook is really fucking boring, and Twitter has nothing to tell us we haven't already heard, and Texted conversations are vacuous wastes of time. People get bored really easily, and what these devices are giving them is, when viewed from a few steps back, stunningly uninvolving. So maybe–*maybe*–this will burn out in a few years when we collective realize that being able to communicate instantaneously does not simultaneously give us anything to say worth listening to. At which point, face-to-faced-ness may come back.

    I am, as I said, being wildly optimistic. Figured I might as well try something new. Not sure I like it. Kind of leaves a funny aftertaste.

  8. ts46064 Says:

    Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you'd say.

  9. Ben Says:

    I've been spanked by Grover Cleveland on two non-consecutive occasions!

  10. tess Says:

    As someone who works for a public library, I'm right with you. And I lack any hope that things will improve when I read/hear stories like this one:
    http://www.npr.org/2011/04/26/135745227/study-narcissism-on-rise-in-pop-lyrics

    No wonder I'm happier in the archives.

  11. Nick Says:

    It's not just when people are actually on their gadgets either (he wrote on his iPhone). I work at a shopping mall and the number of people who apparently think that coming up to me and bellowing "FOOD COURT" followed by a blank stare is a legitimate method of asking for directions is shocking. Pretend you're on Jeopardy and put it in the form of a question.

  12. anotherbozo Says:

    I still remember the courtly manners of a friend who received a cellphone call at a restaurant table. He excused himself, got up, and took the call outside! Not for privacy, mind, but out of consideration for us. Seems really quaint, now.

    Also at a fish stand at our farmer's market: I was conferring with the wife via cellphone on the available catches when my turn came up. The staff member, seeing me still talking on the phone, gave me such a withering stare and a "oh, I thought you were talking to me" routine, and continued his haughty act through the transaction, that I suspected my actions were tiresomely typical, and on other than fish-related calls. Misplaced anger in that case, but I understood his grievance.

    Ever notice that most of the cellphone/texting calls in question sound/seem less than crucial?

  13. butler Says:

    But, as long as one is in their own home typing away on a desktop, it's cool to publicly celebrate the impending death of an entire generation, and the next generation's ability, once they hold more power, to negatively influence the quality life of life of the previous generation before they pass, etc.

    That's all acceptable: just don't ignore *me* in favor of your electronic device. I notice that one day the author is bashing the previous generation; today it's the next generation.

    Maybe this is the problem: civility is for everyone else.

  14. Middle Seaman Says:

    Andy,
    As an old man, "can we take your bags to your car?" I am way more optimistic. I have kids and grand-kids and they and all their friends wont behave cellophonic. It's a transition time, the younger people are great and they will adjust.

    Mr. Rooney, I do have one serious complaint. Why are American terriblly noisy in restaurants? When I eat by lake Maggiore in Italy, it's very quiet.

  15. Sluggo Says:

    Invasion of the Body Snatchers took place just down the road from Cuppertino, CA.

    Maybe those were I POD People. I'm just sayin'.

  16. Joe Bauers Says:

    Preach on, Brother Ed! Preach on!

    On a related note, when I am emperor it will be legal to shoot people who text and drive at the same time.

  17. Keifus Says:

    Needless to say, I enjoyed reading this on my Blackberry. (Writing a reply, not so much.). I would never have sprung for one of these myself, and the fact that its preferred use is to check my email and favorite blogs during tedious meetings is a tasty bit o' irony at the boss's expense. Also handy for waiting rooms, airports, and, the one I'm going to hell for, stop and go traffic. Sometimes I want to ignore people, in other words, and sometimes it's not inappropriate, and at least reading is quiet.

    Now as for those animated fuckheads talking at the air full volume with a bluetooth dealie on their ear, I think we can agree that they should be lined up and smacked in the nuts.

  18. Denn Says:

    You hit the nail squarely on the head, Joe. The folks attached to their electronic umbilical cords are, most of the time, merely rude; the people driving under the influence of cybercomm are downright dangerous. I swear it was safer back in the old days when they were just drunk.

  19. John Says:

    I am a software developer, and to this day I do not own a cellphone of any kind. I do not have a facebook account, nor a twitter one, and I do not visit either site for any reason.

    I have consciously chosen to remove myself from what I consider to be trends that are slowly ruining what little is left of our society. Though it has little effect overall, it at the very least makes my personal life quieter, and forces others to interact with me as a human being, and not a screen name at the other end of a wire. The cellphone and twitter revolution has reduced most people to narcissistic mongoloids, incapable of interacting with other humans in anything other than a clumsy, fumbling manner that emphasizes the self. Though, as with all technology, twitter has had some moments of practical usefulness, the vast majority of the time it's just a way for remarkably self-centered people to shout a bunch of meaningless bullshit at the world, 140 characters at a time.

  20. Da Moose Says:

    I understand that is an NPF post but it's really, at its heart, especially when you throw the Social Contract in there, perhaps one of the most political posts you can write. I like it because this topic is dear to me. I can't stand it when people do this. If I had been that waiter, I would have promptly applied pepper to that woman's scalp. In my poli sci courses at Beloit, I focused on philosophy mostly rather than modern political topics. So, my political theory classes revolved around Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Wittgenstein, you know, the usual stock though Wittgenstein is a bit out of government 101 bounds. One common theme in these classes is very much related to your post and that is the fundamental recognition that, regarding the social contract, if humans don't appreciate or cultivate the nuanced fabric that constitutes the networks that keep us together as human beings we will then cease to be just that and will devolve back into the State of Nature. I don't think you are being Rooney at all here. I think this is a fundamental discussion point that needs to be brought up again and again. It is not impossible for societies to collapse. Most folks don't realize just how tenuous our existence is.

  21. Chicagojon Says:

    My boss is a VIBT (in his mind) and the one that always gets me is the necessity to pick up a ringing cell phone. We're in a meeting together, it rings, & he picks it up to talk to his son about the upcoming weekend's weather.

    This isn't 1954 with Timmy trapped in the well and everyone sitting around the single home phone waiting for any news or hope. Cell phones have caller ID and (more often than not) the caller is also on a cell phone and therefore accessible. It is a simple matter to hit silent/decline when the phone rings, finish the current conversation, then call the person back or text, listen to the message, etc.

    Cell phones are definitely destroying humanity. I held off ~5 years after others to get my first phone and it's still the one I use — A Nokia candybar phone that has been dropped countless times, has a battery that runs for 4-5 days, & has great reception. It's shocking, but I use it as a phone and for emergencies.

    Of course I'm sitting here at 9:30am getting my ginandtaco fix so I suppose I can't claim too much superiority over avoiding new media distractions or excess, but cell phones are clearly the root of this modern evil.

  22. The Moar You Know Says:

    I worked at a Starbucks for a couple of years in the early 2000's. The problem is not teens nor young people; they're smart enough to get off the phone. It's the 30-50 age group, mostly women, that are the absolute worst, bar none, for these kinds of offenses. This is a demographic cohort of people that have apparently never heard the word "manners", much less understand what they are.

    Solved my immediate problem by doing something very, very illegal – built a cell-phone jammer and put it under the counter, right beneath the cash register. They only have about a ten to twenty foot range, but that's enough to get Mom off her fucking phone, figure out what she wanted to order, complain about our cellphone reception and get her stick-up-the-ass, picky, overpriced, bitchy order and give me money.

    That job, more than any other, convinced me that a worldwide plague that would kill off all of the human population would be a great, great thing.

  23. Tara Says:

    I agree with The Moar You Know. I work mostly with children from about 3-18, and while I think a lot of them are far too dependent on social media and sometimes have weird manners as a result, most of them shape up when you point out they're being impolite. The real problems come with the people who think they're far too important to waste time interacting with anyone outside their social class. As in, yuppies. I remember having an urgent question about a child and trying to speak to this 45-year old man (a lawyer) who kept smiling apologetically at me… but continued talking to his buddy about golf. For fifteen minutes. Completely unimportant and uncritical. Which reminds me: the kids might be okay now, but I've seen that sweet children with obnoxious parents unfortunately end up taking on a lot of their parents self-importance down the line and become unbearable yuppies themselves.

    As long as some people are too busy and important and wonderful to pick up after themselves or chat and interact with the rest of humanity, there are going to be people who use technology to be jerks. Unfortunately, the technology we have now let's them do it instantaneously and continuously.

  24. dyspeptic Says:

    Snapping fingers for a pepper is an invitation for some special sauce on your entree

    wait til they allow cell phones on planes. I fly frequently and, due to my high (low?) sensitivity to inconsiderate behavior, will among the first taken of the plane in cuffs.

    @Chicagaojon – drives me crazy when I am the customer in the store and the phone rings and I, who has made the commitment to physically to go to your damned store, get dropped down the priority list while they respond to the caller.

    @The Moar You Know Says – couldn't agree more. some of the worst offenders are people in my age cohort. A lot of younger people my be oblivious and thereby rude, but by 30 or so you should have enough experience to know what damage those little sociopathic moments do to the social fabric

  25. jgalt Says:

    I'm sorry, I missed most of this, I was alt-tabbing to another blog….

    Don't worry about going Rooney. Rooney was funny and endearing, and mostly right. Worry that the next generation's Ali G is going to punk you.

  26. Turkle Says:

    I would just like to add, as a frequent Greyhound traveler, that I detest people on a red-eye bus, with the lights off at 3AM and everyone trying to sleep, who insist on having an extremely loud conversation on their cell phone about ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. I could understand if it was a doctor giving medical advice or something, but it's always some idiot saying "OH YEAH ME TOO" really loud for an hour.

  27. D.N. Nation Says:

    Counter-point.

    I have an iPhone. I use it to Tweet/Tumbl/Facebook/e-mail/etc.

    My in-laws do not. They converse audibly at length about things. Political things. Race things. Obama things.

    I glue my eyes to my iPhone precisely not to listen to what they're saying.

  28. JohnR Says:

    Eh, I'm not so worried. First off, this sort of thing is cyclical – when the peasantry rise up in righteous wrath and eviscerate the Very Important Rulers of the Universe, the survivors tend to be a bit more meek and mindful of elementary courtesy for a generation or so. The "Hey Listen To Me!" loud talkers are less pervious to criticism; about all you can really do with them is the Scary Movie treatment which, while extraordinarily satisfying on a deeply personal level, is frowned upon by society. Alas. Plus the stains are so hard to remove.
    Second, as you undoubtedly know yourself, Andy, it's hard to get rid of things that are part of being human. Being a Complete and Utter Asshole is apparently an Aspect of God Himself, since He made us in His Image and that's such a big part of so many of us. I suspect there's some evolutionary reason why so many of us are dirtbags, much the way that mathematical ecologists have been able to show (to their own satisfaction, anyway) that cheaters usually prosper as long as there aren't too many of them.
    I usually go back and read Cordle to Onion to Carrot by PK Dick when I get too annoyed. I find it strangely soothing.

  29. Surly Duff Says:

    - People being inconsiderate to the help or individuals providing a service, is a time-honored tradition. Doing it now because you are too busy to remove the phone from your ear is just an increased level of obnoxiousness. Regardless, I worked for years as a waiter and cook to pay for school, and plenty of people without cellphones snapped their fingers. The most inconsiderate individuals received poor service and sometimes more.

    - I hope allowing the use of cell phones during flights never happens. It is already bad enough listening to every fucking person snap on their phones the minute the plane lands to tell their mother/father/sister/wife/husband/child that their plane just landed, and its raining, and the flight was long, and they have to get their bag, and…basically a running commentary of the whole flight where nothing happened just like every other flight. Tiresome.

    - I agree that the biggest problem is for 20-50 year olds and not those dastardly kids. The problem is that those 20-50 self-important 50-year olds are raising said kids and ensuring that they will grow up to be similar self-indulgent douchebags that have little regard for the rest of humanity.

  30. Jado Says:

    Might I add retail clerks who interrupt my purchase transaction to answer the phone.

    I am on your premises. I have chosen a commodity I wish to purchase, and I have waited in line in order to hand you my cash/card/whatever in order to complete this transaction. THIS IS MONEY I AM GIVING YOU. RIGHT HERE. RIGHT NOW.

    Unless you know for a FACT that the party on the phone is going to purchase 10 times my amount, I would appreciate an uninterrupted transaction. And I think your manager might appreciate the positive customer service experience as well, instead of the strongly-worded letter I will soon send to corporate informing them of my decision to NEVER frequent their establishment again.

  31. Geds Says:

    Hey, have you heard of the new dance craze? It's called the Funky Grandpa.

  32. Surly Duff Says:

    A real Andy Rooney rant would include more complaints in the form of questions starting with, "Didya ever wonder…"

    My personal Rooney rant: what is the purpose of "air texting" when telling someone about a text message you sent? As pointless as a person holding up their extended thumb and pinky next to an ear when demonstrating how they had a conversation on the phone, it pales in comparison the action of pretending to "thumb-type" on an imaginary blackberry. I know what texting looks like, and you look like a confused, epileptic monkey when pretending to text on a non-existent phone.

  33. PWL Says:

    My turn to go Full Andy Rooney:

    Well, we're now a nation that talks incessantly–but not face to face….

    Also, what can you expect from a society whose mantra is "It's all about me"?

  34. Rosalux Says:

    Most excellent post.

    I'm going to go Double Rooney and add that I despise restaurants with television sets (with the exception of sports bars).

  35. Bettencourt Says:

    Since the subject of manners on planes has come up, am I the only one who finds it incredibly rude when, after the plane lands, people will block the aisle for as long as takes to pull down all their bags from the overhead compartment rather than wait just a few moments to let the people who are ready to deplane get off the damn plane?

    This always drives me absolutely crazy, but the fact that I tend to sit in the back rows probably helps. It's not that I'm in such a hurry to wait at baggage claim; the simple rudeness of it bugs the hell out of me, but no one seems to think anything of it.

  36. Bettencourt Says:

    Also, I agree with Jado about cashiers who delay your purchase so they can answer the phone.

  37. mothra Says:

    I also think it's fair that, while I'm having a conversation at the bar I can check the text that just came in on my phone and then return to the conversation a few seconds later.

    No, punkin', that is not fair. Think of the message you are sending the person you are having the conversation with. You are telling that person that they are inferior to whatever drivel might be appearing on your phone right at that moment. Is that really the message you want to send? Unless you are both waiting for a pal to show up who you have texted, it is MONUMENTALLY RUDE to continually check your freakin' texts while on an outing with a friend. Maybe if I put it this way: suppose you and your pal are sitting at the bar or cafe and chatting happily. Someone comes up to your pal and starts talking to your pal, interrupting your conversation. Your pal completely stops talking to you, turns his or her back on you and continues to converse with the other person until that other person buggers off. Your pal doesn't bother to introduce you to the other person, doesn't acknowledge the interruption of your conversation, nothing. Just leaves you there like a piece of dried-up chopped liver. Get how rude your behavior is now?

    I work with attorneys who are constantly glued to their stupid "smart" phones. So what I do is come up with completely outlandish stuff to say while they are supposed to be paying attention to me. Something like "a pack of aliens landed on my lawn this morning and conducted anal probes on my bi-polar neighbor." Never gets a reaction, either.

  38. Matthew Says:

    Well played, Ed! Nothing wins back your baby boomer readers like an Andy Rooney-style "evils of technology and the end of civilized society" post.

    I see what you did, there.

  39. SarahMC Says:

    It is not necessarily fair to blame the cashiers for picking up the phone while they are ringing you up. It's possible they would rather not multitask but management has instructed them to do so.

  40. tybee Says:

    i'm with John. i am an OSE by trade, a luddite by choice. i have a crackberry because it was forced upon me. i carry it not. the electronic leash and the wireless gibberish isn't for me.

  41. Shane Says:

    I hate people

  42. Travis Says:

    Have you ever read "The Murderer" by Ray Bradbury? First published in 1952. The man definitely saw our time.

  43. BoulderAcademic Says:

    I heard a line recently (but cannot remember who said it): "If I'm going to be alone, I'd prefer to be by myself, thank you."

    I think it captures the sentiment pretty well.

  44. drive-by Says:

    @Tess the librarian: perhaps this long but fascinating criticism of the "narcissism in pop lyrics" paper will restore some of your hope?

    http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/770.html

    On the job board at my university — I am a graduate student — I constantly see postings for social media/outreach experts at generally appealing nonprofits. I'd be happy to work for these organizations, but I don't know how to save the world by tweeting. If other social media-saturated kids do, more power to them, I guess.

  45. Julie Says:

    My husband works at a garage. The other day a woman waited for an oil change, talking on her cellphone while her kids and the several extra children she brought along for the ride played swordfight in the parking lot with windshield wipers from the display rack.

    I like the way this story combines lots of Rooneyesque elements: cellphone rudeness, parents who don't discipline their kids, lack of respect for other people's property, and a little "you kids get off my lawn!".

  46. ABK Says:

    I present the Balkan paradox: the average city dweller there has more than 2 cellphones, but no one is ever on their phone in the street/subway/bus. It is a quantum mystery.

  47. mother earth Says:

    Loved this post. Had a laugh when we were on our way to the beach last week. In a McAlister's outside of Jackson MS late to eat dinner, the table next to us had 3 adults. At one point, all three were talking on cellphones and not to each other. Made us chuckle.

  48. Aaron Schroeder Says:

    Okay, so two interesting too-much-cell-phone experiences no one has mentioned yet.

    I dated the same person through most of college, and since we graduated in 2009, both of our public-behavior-dating-etiquettes took form before people signed up to have cell phones implanted just below their amygdalae. So, when I made it back to the dating scene with a couple of girls a few years younger than I am, I was shocked (shocked!) to discover that the new college set thought it acceptable during a date to text, text, text, and now, check facebook, text, text, respond to a question with a nod and an apology, send two more quick texts, take a drink of the $6 beer I bought you, and…okay, back to forgetting where we were in the conversation. (Rinse and repeat)

    About eight months ago now, I attended a performance of Un Masqued Ballo at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. It was my first time to the opera, and I was sort of looking to have a Julie Roberts in Pretty Woman experience – you know, the crying and, oh, the beauty! etc. But of course, the two women in front of me took it upon themselves to ruin it for me by their constant chittering repeated illumination of their Androids. I spent the first act break in a silent huff, and the second conferring with those seated next to me about how annoying and low was the behavior of the 40+ year old women in front of us. Now, I'm a grad student, so I paid the grad student price, but everyone around these people and the people themselves paid, wait for it, $130 per seat – and we were in the back of the third balcony! In the third act, I finally leaned forward and whispered to one of the woman, "That's very distracting," and the cellphones immediately shut off. But get this, after the performance ended and people were standing around in the upper lobby, the woman's husband had the temerity to step right up and pissed-offedly ask just what I said to his wife. I told him what had happened, and he said, "Next time, mind your own fucking business, asshole" and stalked off.

    All of this just to say, cell phone manners are bad and are getting worse, and what's bad and getting worse about them is the degree to which they deform social interactions – and in a surprising variety of settings.

  49. Bob Hopeless Says:

    "But, as long as one is in their own home typing away on a desktop, it's cool to publicly celebrate the impending death of an entire generation, and the next generation's ability, once they hold more power, to negatively influence the quality life of life of the previous generation before they pass, etc."

    What Butler said. At least you're picking on your own cohort for a change.

  50. Neal Deesit Says:

    My brother, in his early 50's, was waiting for a plane in an airport seat farm. He was involuntarily subjected to the extended phone conversation of a young woman nearby, going on loudly and at some length about her birth control problems. When her conversation ended, my brother said to her "So, you're sexually active."

  51. Cap'n Billy Says:

    re: snapping fingers in restaurants.

    This used to be (still is?) common behavior in Germany. The first time I heard it I was sure the waiter would punch the guy out, but apparently he was used to it. So now you know who else snapped his fingers in restaurants….

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