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JENKINS: Cellphone use exemplifies "new etiquette" — or lack thereof

Is common courtesy on the decline, as many experts seem to think? Personally, I'm not so sure. I never thought it was all that common to begin with.

Certainly, it's getting harder to find people who practice what used to be considered basic good manners -- for example, men who hold the door for ladies. Of course, it's also getting harder to find ladies.

But before we become too vocal in decrying the "death of manners," we should probably acknowledge that as society has changed, so too have our views on what constitutes proper etiquette. We may be more tolerant of hats indoors and elbows on the table, but there are some things we simply will not tolerate, such as cable outages during football season.

In other words, it's not that we've abandoned the idea of courtesy but rather that we've developed a new set of rules that seem more relevant to modern society. And just as with the old set, we violate these rules at the risk of humiliation and ostracism. (Which has nothing to do with large flightless birds, for those of you who went to Atlanta City schools.)

Take cellphones, for example. Our culture has developed, by general consensus, a set of guidelines that govern when and where cellphones may be used within the bounds of good manners. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first known use of the terms "cellphone" and "good manners" in the same sentence.)

Thus, while it is considered rude to use your cellphone in a nice restaurant, you may do so with impunity in a fast-food place. You can also talk on your cell at the ballpark or shopping mall, but not at church or during a movie. And your Aunt Gertrude's funeral is definitely no place for your "Don't Fear the Reaper" ringtone.

Those who violate this unwritten social contract may face more than just angry looks from passers-by. The Washington Post reported that Metro Transit Police arrested a young woman for talking too loudly -- not to mention obscenely -- on her cellphone in a train station. Obviously, her rude behavior distracted the officer from the beatings and muggings going on nearby.

According to the Post, transit authorities "say that cellphones have become just another instrument of loutish behavior in the public space and that they are fighting a dramatic distortion of manners in the transit system." How they distinguish this "distortion" from normal behavior in a city full of politicians and bureaucrats isn't clear.

"We wouldn't allow someone to come into the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and shout obscenities into a cellphone," said Robert J. Smith, chairman of the Metro board.

No, Mr. Smith, we certainly would not. This is America, where you have to get yourself duly elected to Congress before you can shout obscenities in the Capitol Building.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.