In an increasingly digital world, where's the line on common courtesy?

In an increasingly digital world, where's the line on common courtesy?
A man was sprayed with Mace at the TCL Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood after asking a woman sitting in front of him to turn off her smartphone. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Texting during movies is obnoxious. And, increasingly, it's dangerous.

Earlier this week, a man was sprayed in the face with Mace at the TCL Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood after asking a woman sitting in front of him to turn off her smartphone.


When I first read this, on the website Mashable, I thought it was one of those bogus online yarns that get passed off as fact. Mashable's story was sourced to an unnamed "eyewitness who was sitting nearby."

But Jerry Digney, a publicist for the theaters, acknowledged that it happened. "We were all surprised by this," he said.

If this was just a weird isolated incident, that wouldn't be such a big thing. But in January, a 71-year-old Florida man allegedly shot and killed another moviegoer during a dispute over the victim's texting during previews.

Curtis Reeves Jr., a retired police captain, faces a charge of second-degree murder. He's out on $150,000 bail pending a trial scheduled to begin in March.

Digital technology has obviously changed social niceties. In many circles, it's no longer considered rude to whip out a mobile device and check email or send a text while others are present.

Many smartphone users even think it's totally cool to fiddle with their gadgets while zooming along the freeway at more than 60 mph.

I once saw some guy on the freeway with an iPad balanced on his steering wheel, swiping with one hand while driving with the other.

"There's a sense of entitlement among many people now, especially younger people," said Steven Petrow, an advice columnist and author of the forthcoming book "Mind Your Digital Manners: Navigating Life in an Age Without Rules."

"We have all these new devices, all these new platforms," he said. "People are redefining what is allowable and what is not."

I think we can all agree that Macing or shooting someone over bad digital manners shouldn't be allowable. But where's the line? Is it permissible nowadays to text during a movie? Is it acceptable to scan your email at the dinner table?

Petrow said the line isn't always clear. "New devices call for a reinterpretation of old rules," he said.

In the case of the incident at the Chinese 6 Theatres, Digney said a crowd of about 400 people had just settled into their seats Monday night for a showing of director Mike Leigh's new movie, "Mr. Turner." It was presented by the American Film Institute as part of the AFI Film Festival.

Digney confirmed that a man seated near the back of the theater repeatedly asked the woman in front of him to turn off her phone, which was glowing brightly.

After receiving no response, he tapped her on the shoulder. The woman then angrily stood up, shouted that the man had assaulted her and shined her phone's flashlight at him.


As other audience members asked the woman to calm down, she reached into her bag and produced a canister of Mace. She sprayed it directly into the man's face.

The man rushed to the bathroom. The woman, meanwhile, sat down again and watched the movie for about 20 minutes, until theater workers arrived and escorted her out.

Digney said the identities of the people involved were unknown because the man declined to press charges and the police weren't notified. Both the man and the woman left the theater separately without any further trouble, he said.

Variety, which ran its own account of the incident also based on an unnamed eyewitness, said the screening of "Mr. Turner" continued and "the audience rather enjoyed the rest of the film."

It would have been up to AFI, which was hosting the event, to offer the man any compensation, Digney said. No one at the film institute returned my calls for comment.

"As far as I know, everyone turned out OK," Digney said.

I asked him if altercations over texting at movies occur frequently.

"It's the way of the world, isn't it?" Digney replied. "Hopefully, common courtesy will prevail."

Hopefully. But doubtful.

Just as the Internet has unleashed hordes of bile-spewing trolls on public discourse, the fun and the convenience of mobile devices have trumped old-fashioned notions of consideration and decency.

"There's been a rise in rudeness," acknowledged Petrow, the digital-etiquette maven. "Times have changed. Technology has changed. There are no established rules of decorum."

I suspect we've entered an era of confrontation in which everyone is constantly asserting his or her rights. We'll thus see more people feeling perfectly comfortable texting or talking during movies, and more people like the guy at the Chinese Theatres asking that they stop.

And, unfortunately, we'll almost certainly see more incidents escalating into acts of violence simply because one person was disrespectful of others.

The gadgetry may be new, but there's an old-school rule that remains relevant. That would be the Golden Rule. (Entitled millennials: Look it up on your smartphones.)

If that's a little archaic for modern tastes, here's a more contemporary variation.


Life's too short to be a schmuck.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. he also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to