DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I was engaging in an amiable conversation with a neighbor, I brought out my phone, as I had gotten a text message from a colleague. Seeing the phone, the neighbor said, “Give me your digits” -- i.e., they wanted my phone number in order to contact me.
Is there a polite way to decline this request? I know in the past, phone numbers were listed in physical phone directories where anyone could look a neighbor up. But no more.
I want to be a good neighbor, but I also suspect this neighbor’s motives in asking for my “digits” is a bit dodgy, and unrelated to pure neighborliness. I do not want them to have my phone number.
In contemporary culture, the tactic is often to lie and give out fake “digits,” but I find that to be rude. What do you suggest I do?
GENTLE READER: The short answer is to give your neighbor an email address you don’t often check. You might even establish one for this purpose. The request was for “digits,” but if someone asks specifically for your telephone number, you should do the same, after saying, “That’s no longer a good way to reach me.”
If you have patience for the long answer, you will understand that you do not have to choose between politeness and privacy.
The disappearance of the telephone book is not the only relevant change. Telephoning itself is slowly disappearing, although you may not have noticed this, with all the public yapping wherever you go.
Yes, everyone is hunched over what is ostensibly a phone. But they are not all talking, especially not the young. They are using it to text, post, play games, take photographs, take videos and keep up with celebrities and other braggarts -- anything but engage in direct vocal contact. For every parent annoyed at a child for never picking up, there is a child annoyed at a parent for not texting instead.
In addition, the constant bombardment of robocalls has made many people stop answering their telephones at all.
Miss Manners is not sorry to see this happen. She has always maintained that the telephone is an inherently rude instrument. It shrilly demands attention, with no consideration of the circumstances of the person being called. As valuable as it is for emergencies, and for people who really want to talk to each other in real time, it is generally a disruptive nuisance.
So there is no reason for you to be embarrassed at not giving out your telephone number. You will seem to be showing consideration for the person who asked, saving frustration at not being able to reach you.