My cell phone rang the other day while I was in conversation with a friend. When I didn't reach for my phone he asked "aren't you going to answer that?" Not even glancing at the screen, I silenced the ring (though I thought I'd done that before we sat down) and I continued the conversation. He was visibly upset and distracted and finally we talked about it. He told me that it would have been okay if I answered the call because everybody does it. He was used to people answering texts, emails or calls in the middle of conversations and admitted that he did it too.
What struck me about the encounter was not the proper etiquette of conversation and cell phone use (about which I have strong opinions) but of the counterbalance of living in a culture while being free to make our own decisions. Society creates cultural norms of what is and is not acceptable behavior, dress, and speech and each generation pushes the boundary in their own way, while the other generations wring their hands at the decline of civilization evidenced by this bad behavior.
Yet all hand-wringing aside, we a choice. We can go along with the cultural norms or not. Currently some of our norms include our availability (because of technology) 24/7 to all of our friends and family. Some people expand that availability to their boss and co-workers. Have you even had it happen that someone sends you an email and when you don't respond they follow up with a text and then a call wondering if you are okay because you didn't immediately respond? I continue to have the experience of calling people only to have them say "can I call you back, I'm in a meeting?" Why did they pick up in the first place?
Cultural norms are not laws. They are common understandings between people. Currently the prevailing understanding is that we have to immediately respond to those who contact us. This immediacy continues whether we are at work, on vacation, or just trying to relax. People constantly tell me how much this demand for immediate response annoys them, yet they continue to indulge those who contact them. We have a choice.
Living in a society does not mean we have to go along with every fad, or even what the society decides is "normal" behavior (as long as we do what is legal). We can choose not to jump to answer every electronic message that comes our way and our friends and family will learn about our behavior and eventually have to respect it (probably not without some push-back). We can decide that weekends are ours and we will not answer emails from work. You might be thinking "not in my work." I guess I would say that from my experience, bosses can be trained, (so can co-workers) and if you are performing well, they will get used to it.
Choosing to push back against norms or fads is not easy. People will judge us as "old fashioned" and "out of touch." Yet, I'd rather determine my own actions rather than move toward every new way of doing things. It is the difference of swimming with purpose rather than being taken wherever the tides wills it. So if you call my cell phone and I don't answer. Don't worry, I'll get back to you eventually.