There is a reason why people fight over etiquette. Sure, a few select gentlemen and ladies in the universe passionately care that we all set our tables with the correct salad fork or send out invites to events at strategically timed intervals. The rest of us just shrug, try to prop open the door for the pregnant lady with an armful of groceries and assume we're doing our best to be polite members of society. Because there is no actual authority on What To Do In Every Situation, we are all left to pick a side, argue militantly for the lost cause of manners or roll your eyes at the cultural constructions we claim as social code?
Now for a while, we had it down. Those who cared could just pick up Emily Post, Miss Manners or a host of other etiquette experts' books and get their questions answered. Respond to a written invitation with a phone call? Look it up. Correcting your title when a host introduces you? That's in there too. So maybe the population as a whole wasn't interested in it, but at least there were a few sources you could cite if having a disagreement about the glassware needed for a formal dinner.
And then the computer happened. And the Internet. And the smartphone, the tablet, the Google Glass. Suddenly, we were using devices for communication, business and entertainment that make contact both pervasive and blissfully easy to ignore. Because etiquette and social rules generally establish themselves slowly, we're in a kind of limbo where anything could go.
But let's be clear: Established etiquette rules regarding letters, telephone usage and the like could go a long way to helping us figure out when it's appropriate to avoid Aunt Agatha's nagging phone call. While we live in a world that allows us to see that Aunt Agatha is calling -- and even her frowning face when she does so -- it doesn't mean we can't follow the appropriate rules.
First off, let's just agree that we can't be too strict about screening calls. It seems unlikely to say that there's no appropriate situation to press the "decline" button on your phone. You're in a meeting, you're in the car, you're racing to the office and know that it's just the clinic calling to remind you about your eye appointment. The beauty of our technology is that we can often tell with a glance whether a call is "important" or not.
The gray area, of course, is when you're not answering the call because you simply don't want to. That's morally acceptable to most people, but if you're feeling guilty -- the true sign you've committed what you think is a slight -- there are some ways to lessen it. Instead of answering the call, you could text a quick "Can't talk now; will call later." A lot of smartphones allow you to do this in one swift move; you can decline a call and send an instant "Sorry, can't talk" text immediately.
Of course, that puts the onus on you to actually return the call. We can all agree that promising a call back actually deserves follow-through. But in general, screening your calls has grown to be downright accepted. If it's important, we all know the caller will text you frantically to ring them back.