Suddenly, almost everyone in England has a mobile phone, but because this is new, unfamiliar technology, there are no set rules of etiquette governing when, how and in what manner these phones should be used. We are having to 'make up' and negotiate these rules as we go along - a fascinating process to watch and, for a social scientist, very exciting, as one does not often get the opportunity to study the formation of a new set of unwritten social rules.
For example: I have found that most English people, if asked, agree that talking loudly about banal business or domestic matters on one's mobile while on a train is rude and inconsiderate. Yet a significant minority of people still do this, and while their fellow passengers may sigh and roll their eyes, they very rarely challenge the offenders directly - as this would involve breaking other, well-established English rules and inhibitions about talking to strangers, making a scene or drawing attention to oneself. The offenders, despite much public discussion of this problem, seem oblivious to the effects of their behaviour, in the same way that people tend to pick their noses and scratch their armpits in their cars, apparently forgetting that they are not invisible.
How will this apparent impasse be resolved? There are some early signs of emerging rules regarding mobile- phone use in public places, and it looks as though loud 'I'm on a train' conversations - or mobiles ringing in cinemas and theatres - may eventually become as unacceptable as queue jumping, but we cannot yet be certain, particularly given English inhibitions about confronting offenders. Inappropriate mobile-phone use on trains and in other public places is at least a social issue of which everyone is now aware. But there are other aspects of'emerging' mobile-phone etiquette that are even more blurred and controversial.
There are, for example, as yet no agreed rules of etiquette on the use of mobile phones during business meetings. Do you switch your phone off, discreetly, before entering the meeting? Or do you take your phone out and make a big ostentatious show of switching it off, as a flattering gesture conveying the message 'See how important you are: I am switching off my phone for you'? Then do you place your switched-off phone on the table as a reminder of your courtesy and your client's or colleague's status? If you keep it switched on, do you do so overtly or leave it in your briefcase? Do you take calls during the meeting? My preliminary observations indicate that lower-ranking English executives tend to be less courteous, attempting to trumpet their own importance by keeping phones on and taking calls during meetings, while high-ranking people with nothing to prove tend to be more considerate.
Then what about lunch? Is it acceptable to switch your phone back on during the business lunch? Do you need to give a reason? Apologize? Again, my initial observations and interviews suggest a similar pattern. Low- status, insecure people tend to take and even sometimes make calls during a business lunch - often apologizing and giving reasons, but in such a self-important 'I'm so busy and indispensable' manner that their 'apology' is really a disguised boast. Their higher-ranking, more secure colleagues either leave their phones switched off or, if they absolutely must keep them on for some reason, apologize in a genuine and often embarrassed, self- deprecating manner.
There are many other, much more subtle social uses of mobile phones, some of which do not even involve talking on the phone at all - such as the competitive use of the mobile phone itself as a status-signal, particularly among teenagers, but also in some cases replacing the car as a medium for macho 'mine's better than yours' displays among older males, with discussions of the relative merits of different brands, networks and features taking the place of more traditional conversations about alloy wheels, nought-to-sixty, BHP, etc.
I have also noticed that many women now use their mobiles as 'barrier signals' when on their own in coffee bars and other public places, as an alternative to the traditional use of a newspaper or magazine to signal unavailability and mark personal 'territory'. Even when not in use, the mobile placed on the table acts as an effective symbolic bodyguard, a protector against unwanted social contact: women will touch the phone or pick it up when a potential 'intruder' approaches. One woman explained: 'You just feel safer if it's there - just on the table, next to your hand . . . Actually it's better than a newspaper because it's real people - I mean, there are real people in there you could call or text if you wanted, you know? It's sort of reassuring.' The idea of one's social support network of friends and family being somehow 'inside' the mobile phone means that even just touching or holding the phone gives a sense of being protected - and sends a signal to others that one is not alone and vulnerable.
This example provides an indication of the more important social functions of the mobile phone. I've written about this issue at great length elsewhere^, but it is worth explaining briefly here. The mobile phone has, I believe, become the modern equivalent of the garden fence or village green. The space-age technology of mobile phones has allowed us to return to the more natural and humane communication patterns of preindustrial society, when we lived in small, stable communities, and enjoyed frequent'grooming talk'with a tightly integrated social network of family and friends. In the fast-paced modern world, we had become severely restricted in both the quantity and quality of communication with our social network. Most of us no longer enjoy the cosiness of a gossip over the garden fence. We may not even know our neighbours' names, and communication is often limited to a brief, slightly embarrassed nod, if that. Families and friends are scattered, and even if our relatives or friends live nearby, we are often too busy or too tired to visit. We are constantly on the move, spending much of our time commuting to and from work either among strangers on trains and buses, or alone and isolated in our cars. These factors are particularly problematic for the English, as we tend to be more reserved and socially inhibited than other cultures; we do not talk to strangers, or make friends quickly and easily.
Landline telephones allowed us to communicate, but not in the sort of frequent, easy, spontaneous, casual style that would have characterised the small communities for which we are adapted by evolution, and in which most of us lived in pre-industrial times. Mobile phones - particularly the ability to send short, frequent, cheap text messages - restore our sense of connection and community, and provide an antidote to the pressures and alienation of modern urban life. They are a kind of'social lifeline' in a fragmented and isolating world.
Think about a typical, brief 'village-green' conversation: 'Hi, how're you doing?' 'Fine, just off to the shops - oh, how's your Mum?' 'Much better, thanks' 'Oh, good, give her my love - see you later'. If you take most of the vowels out of the village-green conversation, and scramble the rest of the letters into 'text-message dialect' (HOW R U? C U L8ER), to me it sounds uncannily like a typical SMS or text exchange: not much is said - a friendly greeting, maybe a scrap of news - but a personal connection is made, people are reminded that they are not alone. Until the advent of mobile text messaging, many of us were having to live without this kind of small but psychologically and socially very important form of communication.
But this new form of communication requires a new set of unspoken rules, and the negotiations over the formation of these rules are currently causing a certain amount of tension and conflict - particularly the issue of whether mobile text is an appropriate medium for certain types of conversation. Chatting someone up, flirting by text is accepted, even encouraged, but some women complain that men use texting as a way of avoiding talking. 'Dumping' someone by text-message is widely regarded as cowardly and absolutely unacceptable, but this rule has not yet become firmly established enough to prevent some people from ending relationships in this manner.
Assignment to the text:
I. Study the following words and phrases:
1. alleged (identity crisis)
3. to pontificate
4. to commit a breach of etiquette
5. to override
6. an ice-breaker
8. to air-kiss, to cheek-kiss
10. a soul-barer
11. to outstay smb’s welcome
14. a catchphrase
II. Get ready to discuss the following points:
1. What encouraged Kate Fox to write this book?
2. What is her opinion about the necessity of acculturation? Do you agree with her?
3. What does she mean by the “Grammar of English behaviour”?
4. What are the functions of ‘weather speak’?
5. What answer are you supposed to give to a remark about the weather according to the English etiquette?
6. How can you express disagreement with the remark about the weather without breaking the etiquette rules?
7. What is the typical English way of introducing oneself? Do the English like the American way of introducing oneself?
8. How does Kate Fox describe the concept of privacy? What social rules are concerned with maintenance of privacy? In what way do the English differ from Americans in understanding this concept?
9. What is the function of ‘guessing game’?
10. What is specific about English humour?
11. What is the most important ingredient of English humour? How do they differ from Americans in that respect?
12. Hoe does Kate Fox qualify understatement?
13. What is the essence of self-deprecation rule?
14. What feature of English national character is revealed in following the rules of the language codes?
15. How do the rules of mobile phone talk differ from ours?