It turns out that people do not like to be annoyed. Furthermore, they consider it annoying to be interrupted by sales pitches when they are at home minding their own business.
Well, the Federal Trade Commission knew some people felt that way when it offered its Do Not Call Registry, but not that millions of citizens would rush to get their telephone numbers declared legally off limits to telemarketers. "We all believed that we were totally on top of things and volume couldn't possibly exceed what we were planning for," an FTC spokeswoman was quoted as saying.
The American Teleservices Association must not have known, because it has made countless passionate declarations about the convenience it offers the public by initiating such calls. Detractors had it backward, they would argue: Telemarketers save people from the tedium of minding their own business by offering commercial alternatives. Now that it appears otherwise, the association hopes to invoke its constitutional right to annoy people, filing suit to block the registry as an infringement of free speech.
The pioneers of cyberspace didn't know, because they spent years extolling the joys of totally accessible communication -- right up until the time they couldn't find their own messages to that effect in the swamps of their own in-boxes. Internet providers and the United States Congress now know, because they are grappling with restraints against the annoyance of spam, not including their own mailings.
Miss Manners has always known, because dealing with telemarketers is a longstanding etiquette issue. Polite people fret that they would feel rude to hang up, and rude people entertain themselves by thinking of crushing things to say.
Telemarketers complain of that rudeness, either shamelessly ignoring the provocation they offer or shamefacedly pleading that they know they are annoying people, but they have to do so to make a living.
The conflict between annoyance and freedom, including economic freedom, is normally solved within the domain of etiquette, and it rarely lends itself to easy judgments. We want both, of course -- the right to be annoying, especially in the struggle to make a living, and the right to be free from annoyance.
Having rejected Old-World snobbery against doing business, Americans have been willing to put up with a lot in the way of commercial annoyance. We accept huge quantities of advertising in ever-expanding realms -- first television, then movies; first stadiums, then schools.
We're no longer shocked when friends, neighbors and their children use their personal connections to importune us to buy something. Indeed, reaching the status where you are paid to sell something that has little to do with your real accomplishments -- the celebrity endorsement -- is considered not just easy work for huge pay, but an honor.
And when we hear that millions of jobs will be lost, our instinct is to be sympathetic -- even when the job in question is to annoy us.
But apparently there is a limit. Don't clog up our telephones or our computers. We need to keep them free so that we can call and e-mail others whenever and however much we feel like it.
So don't ask, don't sell.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have read that it is not proper to address a woman in a letter as "Dear Ms. (second name)." A lady should always be addressed in a letter by her first name.
Now I understand that the latest trend is to address a woman exactly as a man, i.e. by her second name. Could you please settle this matter for me?
GENTLE READER: Only if you don't force Miss Manners to think about the reasoning behind your adviser's notion that ladies need not receive the respect that gentlemen do -- and your failure to realize immediately that there was something wrong with it.