Heretical But True: The Very Polite are Not Digital

Today’s front page of the New York Times has the story that two cornerstone books on “etiquette” (What is that? some younger readers might be asking) have been updated or adapted for the Digital Age. In part this is because both were published many years ago when the word “tweet” referred to a sound only birds made.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was written 75 years ago and Emily Post’s Etiquette: Manners for a Modern World was first published in 1922 and has been revised since by her heirs.

Now Post has an updated edition, the first since 2004, and Dale Carnegie’s tome has been adapted — clumsily says the Times — and rebranded How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age.

Both are panned in the Times, rightfully so. Do we really need to be told not to behave like Tiger Woods off the golf course (Carnegie)? Post tells us not to light up our phones in theaters blinding our neighbors, think about what we say in corporate email and so forth. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff.

But the truth is actually more simple than any of this: if you want to be really polite, don’t be digital.

This might sound like heresy — but it’s true. When you interact with someone one-on-one, the last thing they want to see is your cell phone, tablet or computer. They want to know they have your attention. Nothing is more irritating than arriving to dinner — or even to a business meeting — and finding your companion has his phones spread across the table. He is clearly transmitting a signal of self-importance that misfires badly. The more phones he has, the greater you know his insecurity to be.

If it’s a date then personally I cross off this person as a candidate for sex immediately. Who knows, his phones might trill mid-act and that’s just really rude. Of more immediate concern: if he’s that busy that he needs to use the phones, then he doesn’t have time for dinner and it would have been more polite to cancel.

Second: Facebook. The truly elegant are not on Facebook. This might sound like heresy coming from a blogger for a website who has not one but two Facebook accounts — but who said I was elegant?

There is a dying breed among us who have a long-held belief that the only publicity you want is when you are born and when you die and there are some — interestingly, often the most successful of my acquaintances — who shudder at the idea of Facebook. If they want to show photos of themselves to their friends they do so in private and when it comes to their birthday, well, they rely on the hope (perhaps vain) that people close to them will remember without an electronic nudge. The last thing they want is 100 felicitations from people they barely know.

Then there’s the issue of tweeting. One friend emailed me yesterday that he was gripped by the endless tweets of a man in his forties who was having the first live mid-life crisis via Twitter that he’d ever read. His tweets went something like this: “was just at a party for Jay-z; please see my cute daughter’s bday party; here’s me with Tinsley Mortimer; now I’m interested in Syria.” They are completely ADD — and bewildering. We are all left scratching our heads wondering what he’s doing. “Does he realize he’s having a public melt-down minute-by-minute?” one person articulated to me.

The point is, tweeting about how you feel, who you met, where you’ve just been, is way too much information, even for your friends. It also gives the impression that you are a frivolous person with absolutely nothing else to do.

So all you manic tweeters, try this: If you haven’t thought of your phone or tablet or computer as a gun that killed someone every time you tweeted, then please do so and pause. Because right now as you push send more and more tweet recipients are dying — of boredom at what they are reading.

As for email? Just remember that words come cheap and they are cheaper still when typed fast.
I once asked the brother of a self-made tycoon what would he like as a housegift. The answer: “a handwritten thank you letter.”

“No one” says the brother, “writes those any more.”

Peter G. Peterson, the former Chairman of The Blackstone Group, built a career on carefully written notes on beautiful stationery. The gesture made him memorable; he stood out. He’d stand out even more now — when all anyone does to say thank you following a meeting of business lunch is to shoot off a one word email: “thanks.”

Everyone who aspires to to the American dream should pause and think about that.V