Becoming less civil

Published 12:42 am Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Get this: Millennials hate voice mail and don’t often bother to listen to their messages.

So reports NPR’s “All Things Considered” in its “The New Boom” series.

As it goes, millennials prefer to receive their information via text or Facebook messages. If they receive a voice message on their phone, they likely won’t bother to listen to it.

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Which illustrates how rapidly technology is changing human behavior. Whereas millennials now consider it rude to leave them a voice message, it used to be considered rude to even have an answering device.

Social scientist James Katz told The Wall Street Journal that answering machines were considered insulting in the 1970s. By the mid-1990s, though, more than two-thirds of U.S. homes had them, and of those, half used them to screen their calls.

My old pal Gruntly, who never did like to talk on the phone, always used his answering machine to screen calls. When I used to call, saying, “Hello! Helloooo!,” I knew Gruntly was sitting in a chair, eating Doritos and watching CNN. The only time his phone was ever picked up was when his wife was home.

And though Gruntly never answered the phone at his house, he hung up on my answering machine every time he called. I know this because I was one of the first to purchase Caller ID when it became available in the ‘90s.

Truth be told, I was shocked to learn how many people had been calling and hanging up on my machine when I wasn’t home — and I was finally able to prove that Gruntly was one of the callers. I called him at work one day — he has to answer his work phone — and confronted him.

Purcell: You called last night?

Gruntly: No.

Purcell: And the night before?

Gruntly: No.

Purcell: Aha!

I gleefully presented my high-tech evidence, while he surely squirmed in his office chair. I admit, it is a little creepy to have this sort of power over your friends, but Gruntly started it.

I find it interesting that so many of the advances in technology that are supposed to make our lives easier are instead making them much less civil. There are many other examples.

I was at the movies recently when I heard a cellphone ringing. A woman pulled the phone out of her purse and began talking. I turned to her and said, “Excuse me!” She glared back as though I was rude for interrupting her conversation.

But maybe I was the rude one. Technology is changing the rules of etiquette so rapidly, who knows what’s right or wrong anymore? Is it inconsiderate to screen calls or should you answer? Where and when should you use your cell phone? Where and when should you turn off its ringer?

That’s why I wonder, sometimes, if all of our gadgets are improving our lives. Before we had email, we had to use typewriters or hand-write letters to each other. Before cell phones, we had to use pay phones or wait until we got home to make calls. Before answering machines and Caller ID, we were forced to answer our phones and be polite to people we didn’t want to talk to.

But no more.

In any event, while millennials are sour on answering machines and voice mail, my parents still use their answering machine every day. They used to answer their phone no matter when I called. But they’re retired now and they no longer want to deal with their children’s dramas. They screen calls with their answering machine all of the time.

Mom and Dad, I know you’re home. Would you please pick up the phone!


Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!” is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc.