Miss Manners hears that you can now be reached anywhere, at any time.Your telephone system not only includes several lines, extensions in the bathrooms, a separate number in the car and a cordless telephone for the garden, but a special telephone in a black bag that you carry with you wherever you go.
In the unlikely event that you are caught without any of these (perhaps you are overcome with scruples at the idea of taking a telephone to a concert or a funeral - although Miss Manners did hear a telephone ring in the crowd at a museum showing of the paintings of Canaletto), you carry a paging system that alerts you to drop whatever you are doing and report to the nearest telephone immediately.
Of course, the telephone isn't enough; you have been branching out into fax machines for some time. If you don't have as many of these as you have telephones, you at least learn the fax numbers of every stop you make - restaurants, other people's offices and homes - so you can receive a trail of messages as you go.
This is not to suggest that you are at the mercy of anyone who wants to have a word with you. Nobody who has such an impressive outlay actually wants to be reached by anyone at any time.
Therefore, all this equipment is in turn buttressed with answering machines, and even people, whose job it is to prevent just anyone who wants to call you from reaching you.
But the main thing is that the technology is there. When something is urgent, it can get to you immediately. And a great many things seem to be urgent. Miss Manners has yet to encounter a state-of-the-art availability system that is kept quiet and free in anticipation of that one crucial hot-line call. People who own all this stuff seem to use it a lot.
When she looks around at how many of you cannot take a step without making and receiving communications from afar, Miss Manners is dazzled. Since her perfect manners prevent her from eavesdropping, she will never know what you are saying into the telephones at dinner tables or away from them in the middle of meals; in cars and airplanes; during meetings and parties.
She presumes that you are doing emergency work for the benefit of humanity. You are probably saving lives, souls and the economy. Who else but a self-sacrificing and tireless humanitarian would sacrifice leisure, concentration and privacy to be ever reachable by the cries of others?
While Miss Manners finds it heartening to see so much dedication, she has noticed that it takes its toll. Being on the alert all the time has led to some manners fatigue. Or perhaps it is just a lack of experience in dealing politely with actual people who are standing, unamplified, right in front of your nose.
She must therefore remind those of you who have unfortunately forgotten what it is to talk to a human being within hearing distance that the rule that a live human being takes precedence over a disembodied voice has never been rescinded.
That's right. Even when the telephone is screaming for attention, you go on dealing with the person. "Never mind that," you say of the ringing. "This is more important."
But etiquette does make allowances for extraordinary circumstances, and Miss Manners is not immune to special pleas, especially when they involve the immediate welfare of others. Here then are rules dealing with those conditions.
As far as possible, anyone subject to emergency call should forgo or reschedule less essential events. When fates hang in the balance, ordinary invitations should not be issued or accepted. For those in jobs where crisis is the rule, there are usually arrangements for others to cover when one takes time for the normal business of life.
But Miss Manners does not want to deprive you key people from engaging in a larger share of personal life than your on-call status, if strictly observed, would permit. Something can usually be worked out if you recognize that suspending the rule about ignoring outside messages, when you are engaged with actual people, is an exception made at the sufferance of those others.
It therefore requires warnings, apologies and strategies for being unobtrusive, "Oh, dear, I would hate to miss this, but I'm not entirely free then. Would it be possible for me to slip aside if I had to? Is there some way I could do that without anybody's noticing? I hate to be a bother."
Such a plea can be politely refused, "I'm afraid I'll have to try to catch you again, when you're less busy." But it could also inspire cooperation, "Why don't you sit in the back, and I'll ask someone in the church office to come and tap you on the shoulder quietly if your call comes through."
Miss Manners does not share a rather general view that the only purpose of these vast communication networks is to enable you who have them to show off. By being apologetic and unobtrusive, you can help her get the message out.
1991 United Feature Syndicate Inc.