Real Life Etiquette in the Age of Virtual Reality.

We live in a world where we are less and less connected to large numbers of other people. Half of adults see no one outside of their immediate family in a given day. Children come home from school, nod to their parents, then disappear to their private rooms and plug into some form of virtual reality.

Ironically, we, as a culture, have never been more social.

The adults who never leave their homes may interact with hundreds of people a day as they work from home.

Those who don’t work, probably spend a good deal of the day on Facebook, Skype or at least emailing their friends.

Kids are glued to social networking or networked video games.

And yet, occasionally we still have to interact in a real world environment with other people. More and more it seems people are forgetting how to do this or, at least, they are forgetting how to do this politely.

Having Aspergers, I’ve never really been a natural at interpersonal communication. It means I’ve had to take extra care to pay attention to what I was going and what the people around me were doing. It also means I notice particularly when they do something wrong.

I don’t know why this one comes up, but it’s one of my pet peeves. I think parents must be paying less attention to their children these days or that there is rarely such a thing as a family dinner table. Mastication is not something anyone wants a close look at. People who can’t chew with their lips closed during the process should not eat in the presence of other people. How hard is it to understand? Bite, Close Lips, Chew, Swallow, and then (and only then) should the lips again part.

For the love of all that is holy to anyone, don’t speak between the Bite and the Swallow. When people talk they are pushing air out through their mouths. Anything else in their mouth at the time has a chance to go with said air. Not to mention the all-too-pleasant view of the mid-masticated morsels.

Gum chewing is not a public activity. Gum chewing is still part of the previous paragraphs’ subject area. Gum is great for flavor while working or lazing or reading, or doing any number of things privately. It’s not something anyone should do while sitting at a table conversing, especially not on a professional level. People who come to meetings and chew gum during the meeting will have a hard time convincing me they have enough intelligence to be worth listening to. There’s just something about the cud-chewing jaw motion that makes people look like they’re on-par intellectually with a bovine. People can use gum to freshen their breath after lunch, but they must get rid of it before entering a conference room.

People, who are paying attention to something going on on a screen, unless it’s something of actual timely import with real world consequences, must be prepared to look away from the screen to interact with real people. No matter how critically close to winning that deathmatch someone is, they must turn away from the screen to speak with anyone who approaches to speak with them. If it will only take a few seconds, they can turn, acknowledge the newcomer, advise them that they it will be a moment before they’ll be ready to give a conversation their full attention, and then quickly finish their task. This allows them to actually pay attention to the conversation. If the task cannot be finished quickly it must be set aside until the real person has been addressed and any conversation with the real person ends. This means that no one in a conversation should have their eyes on a screen. Even quick glances give the message that the other person in the conversation is the distraction and the screen is the more important task. Real people should always trump screens. Of course, polite real people won’t impose themselves for extended periods during other people’s personal screen-related activities unless there is a good reason to do so. And, if everyone present is there to pay attention to the screen, such as a movie theatre, the group activity takes precedence over individual activities.

The above is also true of phone calls. When in the company of other people, folks shouldn’t make phone calls, unless they are actually necessary and can be kept short, and they should keep incoming phone calls as brief as possible. No one wants an extended exposure to half of a conversation.

When shopping, it’s acceptable for people to tell whoever is on the other end of a phone call to hold on and then put the phone in their pocket when approaching any customer service professional they plan to interact with. Unless people are for some reason missing parts of their head (and some people, sadly are, are), anyone they interact with deserves the full attention of two ears and two eyes.

Now, the tricky one: When on a phone call; unless it’s a video call, people should try to keep their eyes off of screens. People are not as good at multitasking as they think and it’s usually obvious to the person on the other end of a phone call that they are not receiving the full attention of whomever they are speaking to.

I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could come up with more rude behaviors common in today’s technologically driven world. (And don’t get me started on driving behavior. That’s overdone comedy, but so eternally true.)  I do my best to not partake in these impolitenesses, though I have to admit I have been known to glance at a screen if I’m interrupted for longer than I’d like to be.


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