There is an interesting disconnect in the little city where I live: frequent and enthusiastic professions of devotion to community combined with chronic bad manners. Against a more or less constant buzz of admiration for our warm and welcoming neighborhoods, plenty of people don’t think twice about doing all manner of things that actually undermine community: letting their children run wild where others are trying to enjoy a meal or a concert; letting their dogs do you-know-what in neighbors’ yards; or using leaf blowers before 8am on weekend mornings. Particularly vexing to me is the widespread assumption that it’s appropriate to dictate personal taste. The idea of “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it” cuts no ice with these folks. At the same time, challenging the above-mentioned behaviors, even gently and indirectly, is likely to elicit shocked accusations of intolerance. My better angels counsel that these folks are not malicious; they truly yearn for genuine community and have simply lost their way. (My worse angels are less charitable, but they’ve been told to keep quiet right now so as not to undermine my case.) Still, it begs the question of how these neighbors ended up so confused about tolerance and courtesy.

The other night I happened to catch a fragment of a television commercial (for which product or service I honestly cannot remember), and the gist of the tag line was “the world is your living room.” I immediately shouted, “You know what? It’s NOT!” and repeated it, along with a few other words I won’t share here because I’m complaining about other people’s bad manners. It was a rich moment, both gratifying and aggravating. I don’t think TV commercials predict where we are headed so much as reflect where we are. And where we are is that too many people behave as if the world is their living room. The boundary between public and private space has eroded and as a result, public life is more irritating than it needs to be and private life is less restorative than it ought to be.

I have a theory that confusion about public and private spaces, and its impact on behavior, began when they started putting air conditioners and stereo systems in cars. Once everybody started keeping their windows rolled up all the time and choosing their own audio entertainment–as opposed to engaging with the outside world in the form of whichever radio station brought the least static–a paradigm shift occurred. Whereas traveling on public thoroughfares had been a cooperative venture that entailed awareness of one’s surroundings and a modicum of common courtesy underpinning traffic rules, drivers began focusing more on what went on inside their vehicles and less on the outside world, e.g., traffic and weather conditions. Add cell phones, CD players, DVD players and mobile Internet browsing, and it’s a wonder any of us get where we’re going without either having a wreck or dying of aggravation.

Anyhow, thanks to cable television and wireless Internet connectivity, we now have 24-hour access to a near-infinite array of information and entertainment from gazillions of sources via an ever-growing assortment of devices. We can be non-stop media consumers in the living room or in the car or on a public sidewalk or in the bathtub. Consequently, we’ve gotten turned around about public versus private space. Since our mental and physical spaces naturally reflect and influence each other—feng shui, anyone?–when we lose track of the distinction between public and private realms, it plays out both ways: how we think and how we act.

Once again, we aren’t keeping up culturally with where technology is taking us functionally. No longer tethered by telephone lines, television antennas or modem cables, it feels easy–and right, somehow–to carry our private spaces around with us. Being able to use your phone, watch a TV show or read the paper online when and where it’s convenient, is wonderful. But we’ve unintentionally let it subvert community by encouraging us to abandon good manners. In an authentic community, people with lots of different perspectives, tastes and priorities are continually rubbing up against each other. It’s rarely clear-cut where your rights end and my tolerance needs to begin, and good manners help us negotiate those gray areas. They muffle the sharpest corners and smooth the roughest edges, creating time and space to think before speaking or acting (or posting on the local blog). With the ability to retire to our own virtual space any time, though, it’s tough to remember that we aren’t really at home–we’re out in public (or possibly even in somebody else’s actual space)–and ought to behave accordingly.

There’s a flip side, too. Our own living rooms should be where we get to let our hair down and relax; where our best “company manners” can appropriately take a back seat to plain speaking and candor; and where we get to determine which and how much of the outside world (literal and metaphorical) to admit. But if we are carrying our living rooms around with us all day, how do we take refuge when we get home?

It’s no wonder some advertising people think “the world is your living room” is relevant and resonant. I’d rather it made us cringe a little and think very hard. In a real community, nobody treats the world like their living room; and everybody’s living room offers a retreat from the world. I say, let’s find a way to get right side up again about our private and public spaces, and reclaim the rewards and responsibilities of each.

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Phyllis Gilbert

Phyllis remains engaged in her second career, marketing research (the first was archaeology), and hopes that writing will be her third. A daughter of deep South Georgia, she came of age during the 1970s in a small town right out of the '50s, reared by parents with 1930s sensibilities. She likes living in Decatur because it's kind of like hometown without the kinfolks, so there's not too much meddling--just the right amount.

18 Comments
  1. Frank Povah

    Phyllis, you’ve hit it right on the head – would that it stay down.

    May I add to the list of personal phobias: deliberately noisy mufflers; super-wide tyres with no stone or mud flaps; doof-doof music generally, at high volume particularly; kids standing on restaurant seats; men wearing hats indoors; people who chew gum while they are talking past you (shop assistants and bank tellers never talk to you anymore; they always address an imaginary (presumably) being standing just behind your left shoulder); botoxed and/or pomaded talking heads who speak without ever using their tongues or rounding their lips; newsreaders and political commentators who never bother to learn how to pronounce anything even vaguely foreign: Suh-mowa, Ton-ga, Hurricane Eyegor, Porto Rico; Long John Silver’s.

  2. Phyllis, in an otherwise good article, you’ve misused “begging the question.” Google it for a quick lesson on what it means and how to use it. I know; lately more and more people are using it in the way you did. But most of them don’t write for publication.

    1. Frank Povah

      So she has, but as one who almost daily has to haul writers who should know better over the coals I refrained from pointing it out – I’m already probably too pedantic for my own good.

      However, if I catch a “momentarily” used to mean “very soon”, I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself.

      Oh, and by the way, I was referring to the Long John Silver’s in Georgetown, KY. I have no experience of any other except the one in Singapore, which I still think was put there as a joke, albeit in very poor taste.

    2. (We’re fighting a losing battle on “begging the question,” but I will continue to fight. At least I now know that I’m not in combat alone. )

      Phyllis’s article in beautifully written, perceptive, and painfully true. Thanks for saying it so well.

    3. Thanks, everyone, for the compliments.
      With much chagrin (I’m usually the one pointing out that kind of carelessness), I dutifully Googled “beg the question” to refresh my understanding of the phrase and its accepted usage. Turned out to be more interesting than I expected, and I must say it seems that you folks are fighting a losing battle. Based on some of what I found–my two favorites are linked below–I’ve decided to (1) try to remember not to use the phrase any more because I hate getting caught slipping up, (2) stop tripping over it when others use it, and (3) blame my own hyperbolic tendencies on too-frequent re-reading of Jane Austen. (Not that she indulged in hyperbole, by any means, but something about the cadence of her language seems to have a deleterious effect on mine!)

    4. Thanks, everyone, for the compliments.
      With much chagrin (I’m usually the one pointing out that kind of carelessness), I dutifully Googled “beg the question” to refresh my understanding of the phrase and its accepted usage. Turned out to be more interesting than I expected, and I must say it seems that you folks are fighting a losing battle. Based on some of the commentary I found–my favorite is linked below–I’ve decided to (1) try to remember not to use the phrase any more because I hate getting caught slipping up, (2) stop tripping over it when others use it, and (3) blame my own hyperbolic tendencies on too-frequent re-reading of Jane Austen. (Not that she indulged in hyperbole, by any means, but something about the cadence of her language seems to have a deleterious effect on mine!)

      http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2290

      1. Frank Povah

        Hah!

        I once published some tape transcripts of a folklore project I’d been undertaking among Aboriginals. I, who is always moaning about other people’s spelling and so on, of course typeset the book myself (this in the early days of computers) and rather than ask a friend to double check the work for me let my own ego convince me I was capable of doing it on my own.

        When I got the books back from the printer, the first thing to hit me in the eye was a literal on the first page.

  3. But at our neighbor’s property, the world IS their living room. Literally. They saw those lovely photos in catalogues and magazines depicting a gentile outdoor life — which is ironic since they tore down most of the lush landscape to put in a tennis court — and promptly installed a full outdoor living room, complete with outdoor entertainment system which includes, of course, an outdoor big screen TV. It wasn’t enough to have great giant speakers on the patio, of course not. For the enjoyment of all and without asking us to pitch in a dime, they also have “surround sound,” meaning, there are speakers surrounding the entire fence line of an acre-size property.

    Gosh, the fun we have several times a week when Junior’s squealing friends come by at 10p and crank up the music. And how good of Junior’s parents to support his dream of becoming a South Beach deejay by allowing him to hone his craft right in their own suburban back yard! Don’t get us started on the joy of Karaoke night!

    Did I say Karaoke night? The parties often continue until the sun is brightly shining. They must have a great time to have parties lasting that long. They must have great drugs.

    As the police eventually set up camp outside their door each evening, the parties have finally ended. I guess it took, what, forty, maybe fifty complaints to authorities? Maybe more. Hard to remember. We do check in on Junior’s Facebook page (he, not knowing about the privacy settings) to see if he’s rallying the pals for a big evening, so we can rev up for the fun ourselves.

    “Hon, you have the phone nearby? At 11:01, call it in. The non-emergency police. It’s right there in speed dial.”

    1. Frank Povah

      Meg: What an unAmerican killjoy you are, infringing on your neighbours’ god-given, and no doubt [his] constitutionally endorsed right, to be a mug lair.

    2. I’m confused, doubtless as a result of Googling “beg the question” and vowing that I will never again use that term again because now I have no idea at all what it means.

      Anyway, I do have a question here… Meg, I am a gentile and have been for many years, but I don’t have anything like that in my yard. Is this something I need to correct?

      1. Mary — Nothing gentile about our back yard (“adj: kind, courteous, lovely,” of the sort depicted in Martha Stewart Living and definitely not describing our neighbors or myself). Not with all the hawks and owls, snakes and toads about the area. On the other hand, there are lots of butterflies, hummingbirds and flowers and greenery, so that’s something then.

        I don’t know, truly, if the neighbors imagined a lovely place to rest and relax, but as soon as the speakers were installed, any hope for peace disappeared for us and them both. I mean, they aren’t playing the classical station over there (for us to enjoy over here).

        Mary. If you will, please. Forget “gentile” and “begging the question” or “to beg the question” or other exactitudes. Let us just enjoy finding anyplace at all to insert the term “mug lair” into discussions appropriate. I googled it. Definition by Frank was first on the list!

        “Mug lair.” I’m not kidding. I LOVE it! Thanks, Frank.

  4. Frank Povah

    I think she meant genteel – although she may have meant “gentle”, which I would have seen as unfortunate, though perhaps apt – in Australia gentle is a fisherman’s euphemism for a maggot.

    Why gentles? Sardonic I think. My Uncle Bert – and hundreds of others like him – bred gentles for sale as fishing bait and I suppose you couldn’t expect someone who fished purely for pleasure and could afford to buy bait to sully his hooks with maggots.

    1. I meant “genteel,” although according to Wiktionary, “gentile” works, too, just not as well, which begs the question…AAAAARGH! I’m off to enjoy a Gin & Tonic. Maybe two.

      1. Frank Povah

        Wiktionary is wrong then – genteel comes from the Old French gentil, which survives in gentility, i.e. refined manners (though sometimes to the point of absurdity). Gentile, meaning a non-Jew is Middle English from Latin gentilis from gens gentis “family”.)

        Have another gin on me.

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