How Will the Apple Watch Change Good Manners?

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An Apple employee demonstrates how to use an Apple Watch during an Apple media event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California on March 9, 2015.
Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

One strange thing about the Apple Watch, which will soon be shipping out to the first members of the public who ordered it, is that it relies on its users engaging in a behavior that has long been viewed as rude or impatient: checking one’s watch in a social setting.

The response when someone does this is now deeply ingrained: “Oh, do you have somewhere to be?” Sure, the Apple Watch’s “taptic feedback” feature, in theory, allows users to program the gadget to tap on their wrist in specific ways to indicate when their attention is really needed — a feature Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times enthusiastically endorsed on the grounds that it made him less notification-crazed than he was in his pre-watch days — but come on: Given what we know about smartphone users’ behavior, how are the Apple Watch’s early adopters not going to be obsessively checking the snazzy little computers on their wrists?

Will this be a problem during parties and group dinners, especially those in which most of the participants are non-Apple-Watch-wearers? Or will this one device single-handedly reprogram the long-agreed-upon meaning of a potent social gesture? There are obviously no simple answers to these questions, but I was curious to hear from someone who has thought a lot about manners, so I emailed Henry Hitchings, author of Sorry! The English and Their Manners, which is in part an explanation of where manners come from and how they change.

In his reply, Hitchings wrote that there’s nothing new about new technology rejiggering society’s views of what is and isn’t rude. “Technological innovations tend to have an impact on manners, obviously in part by moving the boundaries of what we consider acceptable, but also by creating new departments of manners — new things to have manners about,” he said.

The invention of the printed book and the car, he explained, are two particularly noteworthy examples. “The car provided people with a panoply of fresh opportunities for incivility, and of course the question of how best to use it gave rise not only to a practical highway code but also to a whole new subset of etiquette,” he said. And “Where the rise of the printed book is concerned, the main change may well have been an increased sense of psychological privacy — and of the need for a personal breathing-space.”

But what about innovations that dragged once-rude-seeming behavior back into the light of acceptable public practice, the way Apple hopes its watch will? Hitchings cited vaping. “We’ve become accustomed to the idea that smoking is an activity to be rigidly policed,” he said. But since vaping isn’t seen as dangerous to others in the same way smoking is, it “has reintroduced a form of smoking into environments from which it has for some time been absent.”

What’s interesting about the vaping example is how seemingly quickly things have changed: A year ago, if I saw someone who seemed to be smoking on the subway, I would have been surprised at their brazenness and at least a little annoyed they were filling the car with smoke. Now the default assumption, when you come across someone smoking in an indoor public setting in New York, is that they’re vaping, and that what they’re doing therefore isn’t rude, or is at least far less rude than smoking indoors.

So if the Apple Watch catches on in certain ways, it could simply be the case that a new category of watch-checking — one that’s maybe seen as less rude — is created in the public mind. You’ll see a friend checking his watch and assume not that he’s impatient or looking to be elsewhere, but that he wants to make sure he hasn’t missed any vital Facebook notifications. A social misdemeanor, at the most, and certainly not a felony.

But Hitchings said one shouldn’t expect consensus anytime soon. “The main impact of technology on manners is a blurring of boundaries,” he said. “Yes, norms shift: We feel different about someone taking a phone call in our presence from how our grandparents might have felt about it. But modern communications technology, of which the Apple Watch is of course just one example, has created uncertainty rather than a new set of social certainties. And while some people may applaud the social fluidity that results from that, there are obvious problems to do with our confusion about privacy, ownership, the distinction between the real and the virtual, and so on.”

If anything, said Hitchings, these ambiguities will be heightened by the fact that the Apple Watch is a watch — that is, “part of our attire and, as such, an expression of our taste and image.” “Consequently,” he explained, “arguments about one’s use of an Apple Watch will be interpreted as deeper judgments about one’s appearance, rather than just as points about surface matters of etiquette, and that has the potential to make those arguments doubly uncomfortable.”

Throw in the polarizing effect the Apple aura tends to have on people, and the first days of the Apple Watch could make for a fascinating social experiment.