Our rapidly growing incivility started with the invention of the telephone-answering machine.
Before the answering machine’s widespread adoption, people answered their landline phones with a pleasant “hello,” eager to learn who was calling.
To be sure, says social scientist James Katz, answering machines were considered rude in the ‘70s.
By the ‘90s, however, most homes had them and lots of people were using them, quite rudely, to screen calls - people like my pal, Griffy.
Calls to Griffy’s landline always made me grumpy:
“Hello, this is Griffy, leave a message at the beep.”
“Pick up the phone, Griffy, I know you’re there!”
Griffy demanded his friends leave messages on his machine, but always hung up on mine - until the invention of the “star 69” feature.
When you punched “star 69” into your phone keypad, you’d get the number of the jerk who had last hung up on your machine.
Boy, did that technology innovation escalate rudeness!
I had a telephone confrontation once with a fellow who had hung up on my machine. I keyed in star 69, got his number, dialed it, then got his answering machine:
“Hello, this is Bill. Sally and I aren’t in right now ... .”
I didn’t know who the fellow was - I figured he’d dialed my number by mistake - so I hung up.
Later that day, after returning from a business meeting, I saw that someone had hung up on my machine again.
I dialed star 69, got the number, dialed it, then heard, “Hello, this is Bill. Sally and I aren’t in right now ... .”
I hung up again. A few moments later, my phone rang. I picked it up.
“Hello,” I said.
“Who is this?” said the man. I recognized the voice. It was Bill.
“You called me and hung up!” I said.
“You called me and hung up!” said Bill.
“Nuh-huh!” I said.
“Yuh-huh!” he said.
Email was another innovation that escalated rudeness. I remember reading a Wall Street Journal story about two Boston lawyers whose email exchange went viral.
One lawyer, a 24-year-old woman, sent an e-mail to an older, established lawyer, declining his job offer.
The older lawyer, miffed that the woman would email her rejection after she’d already accepted the job offer in person, fired off an email telling her she wasn’t very professional.
She replied that if he were a real lawyer he would have made her sign a contract. He replied, in so many words, that she was a snot. She sent one last reply: “blah, blah, blah.”
These are just some examples of how earlier technology innovations made us ruder.
And now, the era of smartphones and social media - the era of nasty tweets and Facebook insults - is making rudeness, reports Psychology Today, “our new normal.”
The magazine cites research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, that finds technology-enabled anonymity and “a lack of eye contact” are chief contributors to our growing incivility.
To wit: Technology is making it easier than ever to be rude to our fellow man, but we must fight this impulse, or else our already overheated public discourse will become increasingly uncivil.
It’s not going to be easy, though.
Even my parents use their answering machine to screen calls from my sisters and me.
Mom and Dad, I know you’re home. Please pick up the phone!
Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.