A Good Rule

Friday, March 19, 2010

Farhad Manjoo recently asked his readers to help him formulate "a concise, easy-to-remember rule that we could all consult when deciding whether to reach for our phones" before texting in a social setting. His readers, regardless of age, mostly thought there was too much texting in public and he received over 300 responses.

The rule that came out of the ensuing discussion Manjoo dubbed the "Bathroom Rule", and he formulated it as follows:

If you're in a situation where you'd excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you should also excuse yourself before reaching for your phone. Otherwise, go ahead without asking. Either way, don't play with your phone longer than you'd stay in the bathroom.
I found myself really liking this rule, but at the same time wondering why I did. Plainly, it is easy to remember, and thus easy to teach, but why did it immediately strike me as valid?

Manjoo offers a big chunk of the answer:
[T]he rule also recognizes that the phone, like going to the bathroom, pulls you away from others people. If you're looking at a screen, you're not paying attention to me. The beauty of the Bathroom Rule is that it relies on a fairly well-established protocol to determine what's rude and what isn't. Every adult knows when it's necessary to excuse yourself to the restroom and when it isn't; indeed, doing is so almost automatic, you don't even really have to think about it. The rule for looking at your phone should be the same way.
All true, but still: Why does practically every adult know this? What is the underlying principle? Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners) comes to the rescue on that count:
Here we go again. Every time there is a new toy, people imagine that it is not covered by existing etiquette rules and therefore they feel free to use it to annoy other people.

So it was with cellular telephones. And, as you point out, people still need to be reminded not to use their telephones to violate the old rules against disturbing others with noise and ignoring people who have a claim on their attention.

Well, guess what? Texting also comes under the latter rule. Nobody sympathizes more than Miss Manners with the tedium of having to make this point to people who aren't paying attention.
Martin is not, to my knowledge, a fan of Ayn Rand, but if she were, I suspect that she would agree that the underlying principle is the trader principle.
A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange--an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment. A trader does not expect to be paid for his defaults, only for his achievements. He does not switch to others the burden of his failures, and he does not mortgage his life into bondage to the failures of others.
If you owe someone your attention, you are violating this principle if you cause that person to expect it and then renege. The rules of etiquette thus provide you a way to know how to honor your commitment.

Interestingly, Rand had little to say about etiquette, all of what I could find being obiter dicta. For example (Search "etiquette" to land on the passage.):
Only one aspect of sex is a legitimate field for legislation: the protection of minors and of unconsenting adults. Apart from criminal actions (such as rape), this aspect includes the need to protect people from being confronted with sights they regard as loathsome. (A corollary of the freedom to see and hear, is the freedom not to look or listen.) Legal restraints on certain types of public displays, such as posters or window displays, are proper--but this is an issue of procedure, of etiquette, not of morality . . .
Rand's many detractors would probably be inclined to take this as a dismissal of etiquette as unimportant, but that would be wrong. Rand is merely indicating that etiquette, like language, is a distinct field from morality. In order to protect rights or trade, we need a way to do so, and etiquette provides us with such a means. Etiquette is a form of communication which, like language, requires both parties to understand and abide by certain conventions. You could not have morality or trade without language. And all social interactions also require additional commonly-understood protocols.

Manjoo veers off into a discussion of subcultures that might regard such matters as constant texting or even communal trips to the restroom as acceptable, but that's a side issue. It's also probably a safe bet that such groups have their own rules of etiquette. "Don't cover the display of my phone while I'm texting," would probably be Rule One for for the "over-text."

So why did I like this rule so much? It succinctly illustrates the power of principles to guide our actions no matter what new or strange situation we find ourselves having to navigate.

-- CAV

P.S. Yesterday, this week's Objectivist Roundup was hosted by Amy Mossoff.

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