The Courier Mail - Saturday 10 February, 2007

One-finger salute by digital world

By Terry Sweetman

One-finger salute by digital world

PRESIDENT Lyndon Johnson once said of Gerald Ford, his eventual successor twice removed, that he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time.

Actually, he said he couldn't fart and chew gum at the same time, but this was in the 1960s when bombing countries into the Stone Age was more acceptable than reporting coarse language.

However, the difficulties the late Mr Ford had with flatulence and mastication are nothing compared with the trouble many people experience in dividing their operative brain cells between their private pleasures and their public chores.

On a daily basis, I watch people trying to conduct low-level business such as buying tickets or investing in Lotto while at least half their brain cells are focused on a game machine, a mobile phone, an iPod or some other auditory device.

It doesn't much worry me that they buy the wrong ticket or play the wrong game, but what does worry me is the sheer lack of manners and the contempt they display towards others.

It is difficult to imagine anything quite so infuriatingly rude as requesting a service or conducting a conversation while not giving the other person the courtesy of actually paying attention.

Yet, people do it all the time. They conduct conversations over their shoulders while buying (or selling) items, they yabber into phones, and they self-importantly continue three-way and four-way conversations while waiters hover and try to take orders.

In some places, it's a two-way trade as flibbertigibbets rattle on to their boyfriends or pimply blokes set up pub dates while they try to supply some service for which you are expected to hand over good money.

In pubs, people babble on while looking over your shoulder at the tractor racing or whatever is gracing the ubiquitous television at the time.

And, have you noticed that while men will never ask directions, they will chip in with their two cents' worth while some good samaritan is doing his best to get their wives unlost?

Some people have had enough of it. As reported in this paper, a few coffee shops and fast food places have signs up warning people that if they want to talk into their phones, they should head to the back of the queue.

In New York, there are moves to fine people $100 if they listen to iPods while crossing the road, an exercise seemingly as challenging as any faced by Mr Ford.

And, when they chew something over in the Big Apple, someone invariably throws the core in our direction.

Harold Scruby, the much-quoted chairman of the Pedestrian Council (what the hell is the PC, anyway?), concedes such a law would be unenforceable in Australia but says gadget-makers have a responsibility to warn of the dangers of using their products while crossing roads.

Right, just like electrical appliances now routinely carry messages warning us not to take them into the bath, tubes of liniment caution you not to swallow the contents, and the mirror behind the sun visor in our car warns against painting your face while driving?

Fortunately, the cops don't want a bar of it, with New South Wales traffic boss Chief Superintendent John Hartley saying: "You can't legislate against stupidity if people are stupid enough to do something that's so distracting they can't see cars coming, that's a problem they need to deal with."

I guess if some turkey gets knocked iPod over apex, common sense might kick in.

And, as sure as God made little green iPods, you can bet some shyster lawyer would make a compensation case out of it.

However, there is no way to legislate against out-and-out rudeness so maybe it's time for a bit of lynch law.

Send the phone addicts and the iPodsters to the back of the queue, refuse to serve them until they turn off or unplug, make them invisible at shop counters and treat them with the mutual discourtesy they deserve.

While we're at it, reserve a place at the end of the line for the queue jumpers who excuse their impatience on the grounds that they are buying only a bottle of water or a single tub of yoghurt, or a packet of gum.

And, how about a long, long electronic queue for the people who hijack the service by phoning instead of getting off their bums to conduct their business in person.

But what is it with people that they can't go through even a minute of their lives in total but attentive silence?

Is it a retreat from the world, a way in which they can hide their insecurities behind a shield of non-stop mindless prattle?

Or is it nothing less than bad manners, selfishness, and contempt for others way up there with spitting in the street, yelling obscenities in public places and chewing gum and doing the other in lifts?

Whatever it is, I've had enough. Switch off or bugger off.

Terry Sweetman's columns also appear in The Courier-Mail on Fridays.

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