Nobody's paying attention. Such is Miss Manners' conclusion after careful and concentrated observation.
Students who grew up doing their homework to television are now playing handheld games and messaging one another during class. Audiences check their electronic notepads during entertainment events.
Executives who run meetings use their notepads and laptops as prompters and projectors, while the subordinates who attend these meetings use theirs to trade comments and jokes about the presentations.
Families at home are taking calls and messages in connection with their work, and workers are exchanging social calls and messages with their families while on the job.
Vacationers take along their computers and telephones so that they can keep working, and workers who are on duty use theirs to keep playing.
People who are out socially are talking on their telephones to others who are not present, while people who are talking on the telephone when they are home are doing all sorts of other tasks, mentionable and unmentionable, and perhaps even e-mailing others while they are talking.
Diners who go to restaurants with other people give priority attention to telephone callers, while diners out alone give theirs to their laptops.
The package of options available to people who are in cars -- other than watching the scenery or the road or talking or playing games with one another -- is staggering. There are radios, ham radios, cassette players, televisions, books on tape, CDs, DVDs, VCDs, GPSes, telephones, fax machines and multiple power outlets for plugging in other appliances.
Oh, yes, and in all of these situations, everyone is also eating.
Miss Manners notices that people who object to all this activity blame the instruments that make it possible. (It used to be only the gadgets that were held accountable, but now the hamburger and the soft drink have also been identified as culpable.) If only we didn't have all these temptations, we might stop driving ourselves frantic with multitasking, not to mention making everyone else around us crazy with the lack of attention and the noise. Life would return to the easy, peaceful ways of the generations who had to do everything by hand, foot and horse.
Miss Manners takes a longer and possibly more tolerant view. As she recalls, there used to be an enchanting distraction available to everyone struck by boredom at school, at work, at home, at meetings, at social events, at performances, on vacation and when traveling. It was called daydreaming.
Because daydreaming required people to think up their own plots, as opposed to simply downloading them, it seems as quaint as paying personal visits instead of instant-messaging. But it does serve to illustrate the etiquette of multitasking.
The rule is that you must not get caught. Appearing not to pay attention to the person or activity at hand is rude.
A good daydreamer was adept at reading the rhythms of speech so as to be able to say, "Really?" at the right intervals, and to maintain appropriate facial expressions without listening to what was being said.
Applied to modern times, this means that anyone obviously ignoring a live person or performance by brandishing equipment to do something else is rude, and that anyone making noises that betray other activities -- the usual one being the click of computer keys heard over the telephone -- or disturb others is rude, but that successfully hidden distractions do not violate etiquette.
They may lead you to drive into trees, which is not nice, but that is a violation that Miss Manners is fortunately not in charge of policing.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: We have recently had two different houseguests, and they removed their linens in different manners. My question is: Which is correct?
Guest One: Removed the linens (sheets and blankets), left them folded on top of the bed and then "made the bed," putting the bedspread and pillows in place.
Guest Two: Removed the sheets, put them on top of my washing machine, then "made the bed" as described above.
GENTLE READER: The guests are both fine, having put their linens where you would find them and left the room looking neat. But Miss Manners is wondering whether it is quite polite of you to have two such considerate guests when some people haven't had any.