Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Channeling Amy Vanderbilt

“I’m in a meeting and can’t talk. Call me back in an hour.” That’s what I got when I called a woman I'd never met who wanted me to edit her ten-thousand-word academic thesis for free. My response: “Up yours.” Of course I didn’t say it until after she’d hung up. And my answer had nothing to do with her wanting me to do it for free.

I’ve never thought of myself as a crusty old timer, but I am baffled by mobile phone etiquette. To my way of thinking, the woman answering the phone was doubly rude: first to those in her meeting, and secondly to me. If she didn’t want to talk, why’d she bother to answer at all?

“But people expect you to answer,” a friend explained after listening to my rant. “People know you’ve got the phone with you, so it’s rude not to answer.”

“What if I’m in the shower?” I countered. “What if I’m urinating? What if I’m on the table in the emergency room with a doctor carving out my appendix?”

“Well,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve answered the phone in the shower.”

And what’s with this “Call me back…”? Wouldn’t common courtesy dictate she call me back? After all, she was the one who wanted the favor. So now I was supposed to remember to call her back so I could be inconvenienced for her benefit? The whole situation smelled Soviet. Like in the Estonian government office I once worked where an unwanted phone call was silenced by raising the receiver a few centimeters from its cradle and letting it drop.

Up yours, indeed.

When I was a child—in the pre-mobile phone era—I was required to answer the telephone this way: Vikerkaar residence, this is Vello speaking. My brother and I hated it. As teenagers, it seemed completely over the top, like we were Canada farm kids pretending to be royalty. Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth speaking. We had to take detailed messages, too, writing down the caller’s name, number, and exact time of call. In the chaotic world we live in, it probably was reassuring when one of the Vikerkaar children answered the phone. But as with kids from any era, we were too focused on our own navels to care. But we did it anyway, because bad manners in our household just weren’t tolerated. And dad wasn’t afraid to enforce it with a belt.

In those days there were three doyens of manners. Emily Post, Miss Manners (Judith Martin’s pseudonym), and Amy Vanderbilt. Our family’s manners were guided by Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette. Published in 1952—and seriously out of date in our household 25 years later—there were chapters titled “Employer-Servant Relations,” “Ship Launchings and Visiting a Naval Vessel,” and “An Audience with the Pope.” But Mrs. Vanderbilt wasn’t too out of touch. She knew that some people who bought books weren’t rich enough to employ a butler and so included the chapter “Gracious Living without Servants.”

Even though there weren’t mobile phones for Mrs. Vanderbilt to write about, I think we’d concur on a few etiquette basics. I believe she’d agree that the man who answered his phone and carried on a five-minute conversation in the second row of the opera was not acting with consideration for others. She’d agree my neighbor who constantly talks on his phone while driving his Audi Q7 endangers fellow drivers. And she would note that if you indeed take calls while using the toilet, it is considerate to wait to flush.

With new technologies like the mobile phone where etiquette isn’t yet formed, it is indeed our duty to challenge the devices, to consider what they contribute versus what they disrupt. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently posed two questions to the inventors of Twitter: Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls? and Was there anything in your childhood that led you to want to destroy civilization as we know it?

Lucky for us all, Edward M. DelSole of Scranton, Pennsylvania, posted a solution in Dowd’s comments section: “Don’t ‘Tweet’ passively. Ensure what you’re saying has purpose.” I do believe he’s channeling Amy Vanderbilt. I haven’t been able to reach Mr. DelSole, but I think he’d say Mrs. Vanderbilt would have excoriated the woman who answered her mobile phone in the meeting. Mrs. Vanderbilt—an extremist to be sure—might have gone so far as to suggest the woman turn her phone off. What a concept! Off!

Several years ago, I was laughing with my brother over the way our parents forced manners upon their children. When he raised the subject of our long telephone greeting, we broke out Amy Vanderbilt to review what she had to say. “A maid employed in the home…answers the phone by saying ‘Mr. Greer’s residence’…A member of the family merely answers ‘Hello.’”

What fools we’d been! The long, excessive polite greeting was reserved for servants! Had we not been too lazy to read, we would have been well within our rights to answer the phone Hello like all of our friends. Of course, our jackbooted parents’ logic was that answering hello led to soon answering Yes?, which led to swearing, which led to sex, which led to teen pregnancy, which led to your entire life being ruined forever. So I guess my parents had a point.

Maybe after reading this, the woman who answered her phone in the meeting will change her behavior. Probably not. Appeals for good manners rarely work without a belt. Which, come to think of it, I’ll happen to have when I tell her I won’t edit her thesis. But then comes the small matter of telling her why. There I’ll just have to hope I can be as polite as Mrs. Vanderbilt.