A generation ago I wrote a magazine editorial about attending my son's Saturday morning soccer game and seeing another parent on the sideline who spent the whole time on his phone rather than being fully present.

You'll have noticed by now how much difference my plaint has had on this sort of behaviour.

So I initially felt complete sympathy with Queenstown shopkeepers Brenda and Mark Douglas who, fed up with customers who refused to interrupt their cellphone calls to conduct their business put up a sign reading "If you can't be bothered getting off your cellphone, we can't be bothered serving you, sorry."

Obviously, the Douglases were doing all right if they could afford to exclude this rapidly growing demographic from their customer base.


The sign itself was a lesson in courtesy – neither passive aggressive nor peremptory, but exemplifying exactly the kind of plain speaking communication whose absence the shopkeepers were bemoaning.

We've all seen those customers. They're invariably people whose friends have hearing defects that require them to conduct cellphone conversations at a volume that would be clearly audible on a runway.

In the store, they point vaguely at what they want. When the shopkeeper can't interpret their sign language they wave more vigorously – the mime equivalent of shouting at a foreign language speaker to get them to understand you.

In the interests of consistency, the Douglases must also never fall into the common shopkeepers' trap of interrupting a conversation with a living breathing human in order to answer the phone.

Phones have long trumped people in shops when they ring just as you're about to ask for what you want and are told: "Excuse me, I'll just take this call". Honestly – weren't you there first?

I grind no axe in this regard. I'm not a shop chatter. The moment a person on the other side of the counter asks me how my day's been or what my plans are, there's a part of me that starts inwardly composing a letter to the Privacy and Commerce Commissions.

But another part knows that normal people enjoy this kind of interaction and that it makes the world a more pleasant place.

So I thought the Douglases would find universal support, but I was wrong.


According to a Facebook friend: "You don't go into a shop to enter into a relationship with the staff but to enter into a financial transaction. Cellphones are a part of life that will not change … It is this guy's job to serve people - it is not the customer's job to be pleasant, polite or get off their cellphone, they are there for one purpose ... to buy something."

If cellphone slaves have no manners, she added, that's their parents' fault; it's not other people's job to fix.

And I should add she is someone with, to my knowledge, fine manners and all desirable social graces. Indeed, what she says is inarguable. The logic is faultless. And yet …

Isn't life better when even a financial transaction can be made into something a little more? And shouldn't we encourage that. Even though I'm as stand-offish as all get out, I remember clearly and word for word some of my mum's pleasant chats with shopkeepers in the early 1960s.

Probably, the Douglases are fighting against the techno-tide that will inevitably overwhelm them. But in the interests of humanity and courtesy, here's hoping they keep up their fight and maybe get a permanent sign made.