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Harvey Mackay Go high-tech without being highly offensive

All I wanted to do was to see a film in a quiet movie theater. The lights dimmed, the movie started and suddenly I saw the light. And that’s when the problem of modern technology and old-fashioned courtesy and respect for other people clashed.

The person sitting next to me took out his BlackBerry to check messages. Instead of being engrossed by the film, I became distracted by the bright light emanating from my neighbor’s technology. Every 15 minutes or so, he'd take out his BlackBerry to check messages, ruining my concentration on the movie. I wasn't sure whether to ask him to stop being rude, which would have caused another distraction, or just let it go. I decided to let it go, but I ended up seeing three-quarters of the film.

There is no question that computers, cell phones, BlackBerrys, global-positioning systems and personal digital assistants make our lives easier. These high-tech gadgets enable us to access information, search the Web, be available 24/7, find the easiest route to an unknown destination and stay in touch with friends and colleagues. In short, many of us think we couldn’t live without them.

But I wonder what price we pay in civility for this technology. As Walt Kelly's Pogo once said in a classic comic strip, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." The problem isn’t the technology, but the people who use the gadgets without considering the rights of others. Some users forget that people have the right not to be interrupted by another’s phone conversations or distracted by their tech toys.

Often, I find that these high-tech gadgets promote rudeness. People yell when using their cell phones on most urban streets, on public buses and airplanes, in doctor’s offices and elevators, disrespecting other people.

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James Katz, the director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers University, noted, "If anything characterizes the 21st century, it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people." Cell phones are all about me, me, me, and forget about you, you, you.

At a restaurant recently, a close friend of mine received a call from her 21-year-old son, asking her where the hot-chocolate mix was located in the kitchen. A table of six sat paralyzed while she directed him through various cabinets to locate the hot chocolate. Was there another way for my friend to handle this but take the call at dinner? Was this an emergency?

Cell phones, of course, can be helpful during an emergency but can also cause problems. Some states now have rules against driving while talking on cell phones. Most experts say that this is distracting and causes accidents, but most people think these rules don't apply to them. And most law-enforcement personnel have placed little emphasis on enforcing these laws. Since driving while using a cell phone can trigger traffic accidents, these laws should be stringently enforced.

I've written about rudeness before and remember fondly that one of my columns on "A cure for the rudeness epidemic" triggered many responses from people frustrated by their co-workers’ or friends’ incivility. That problem has only intensified, and the latest technology exacerbates the issue.

The noted 20th-century social historian Eric Hoffer once wrote, "Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength." I think people who shout when using their cell phones, holler in elevators, sit in movie theaters accessing messages are trying to appear more important than the rest of us. Their rudeness really says, "Look at how important I am." It’s time the other person’s rights for silence in a movie theater and other public places are respected.

Here are my suggestions:

  • The next time you’re about to get on your cell phone or use your BlackBerry, look around and see if anyone is going to be disturbed. Don’t touch that dial, make that call or shout into your phone unless you know you’re in private and aren’t disturbing anyone.
  • If you’re in a busy restaurant or an elevator, call the person back or step outside so you don’t disturb your fellow diners or other people.
  • If you must use the gadget, do so in a quiet, unobtrusive way because the world doesn’t revolve around your needs. How you treat and respect other people says volumes about your character.

Mackay’s Moral: Technology is no excuse for rudeness.
Harvey Mackay is a Minnesota businessman and author.

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