Just as a butterfly flapping its wings in North America can supposedly cause an earthquake in India, it seems that a woman using her mobile in a Sainsbury’s in Crayford can spark a ‘national debate’ on manners and inspire the laying down of a whole new chapter on etiquette.
Broadsheet columnists stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the anonymous checkout worker, regaling us with horrifying accounts of when they too had been spoken to by a person not giving them their undivided attention. The Guardian named her “hero of the week”, while proposing a ban on phones at checkouts. Sandi Toksvig got a deafening cheer on Radio 4 for declaring “I’m so with her on this one.” Thousands, apparently, took to social media to share their disgust. And Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg weighed in on his LBC radio show declaring a “sneaking sympathy” for the unnamed shop assistant. National debates, though, should really have more than one side.
So here goes, I’m putting my hand up, texting in, and saying I unequivocally defend Jo Clarke for using her phone while at the checkout. Sainsbury’s apologised for their employee’s grumpy refusal to serve a paying customer? Too right! While many have said this is about respectful treatment of shop assistants, others have pointed out that supermarkets, in their drive to automate the checkout experience, have done more than anyone to remove the human from the exchange. And if the employee was a crusader for politeness, why the hell was she so damn rude about it? “I will not check your shopping out until you get off your mobile phone,” she supposedly snapped, adding sarcastically when Clarke said she was unaware that Sainsbury’s had such a policy, “you learn something new every day.” Not a hint of a please or thank you.
I might be in the minority here, but I think it’s a fight worth fighting. Some 87 per cent of respondents to a survey on this website answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘Is it rude to talk on your phone while at a shop checkout?’. I’d hazard a guess that the kind of people who take part in these click polls are the same kind that clip coupons from magazines, fold them up very neatly and very tightly and slip them away in awkward pockets in their embroidered purses or dog-eared wallets to be retrieved very slowly and very particularly one by one at the checkout. There may be the occasional cry of “drats” when it turns out one won’t be getting BOGOF on the cheddar cheese because they didn’t put their reading glasses on to check the small print, but at least the whole tedious thing happened with complete, undivided attention for the checkout assistant - and the queue forming behind them.
This heel-dragging mentality is a dangerous thing when you start thinking globally. In the US, Blackberries are gripped firmly at all times: speakers will interrupt conferences to answer emails, giving their audience a welcome opportunity to do the same and help the well-oiled hyper-connected machine roll forward. And you’d be mad to think that our business competitors in Singapore and Silicon Valley give two shakes of a Samsung Galaxy about excessive phone usage. You want the UK to win the future? Then let’s not constrict our use of this generation’s most empowering tools with Victorian ideas of manners.
Strange things happen when the warm-ale-and-village-green strand of Britishness mixes with technology. It’s how we end up at ideas like HS2 being best for the country’s future. £10bn for some bloody choo choo trains! When a sizeable proportion of the rural population still has no broadband! But, uh, you know, it will have that added benefit of, uh, reminding us how good we once were.
In one sense, this is a rehash of an age-old conflict between change and conservatism. To take it one step further from the proverbially butterfly wing-flap, in the clamour to condemn Clarke and beatify the anonymous till worker, we see the playback of one of the grandest cosmic dramas of them all. It’s the tick tick tick of time, and the complete, screaming impotence of humans in its face – whipped to fever pitch by the quickening, juvenile-favouring subject matter of technological progress. But the punchline in all this, and the real reason I reckon I’m on the right side, is that time certainly will tell. The Luddites will come to dust, while Wi-Fi and computer chips are here to stay; and you telling me not to use my phone in the checkout queue, while it might hold the country back a bit, ain’t really gonna matter a scratch in the long term, grandma.