This column is getting a bit old, but since the topic came up a social event (weekly happy hour) recently, I thought I'd post it.
The issue raised by my peers was that of knitting in class. Knitting, as many of you will realize, has made comeback in recent years and more young people than ever are making scarves--and the more ambitious are on to hats, bags, legwarmers, and socks. But is knitting in a public setting--one where you're assumed to be paying attention and even taking notes--blatantly rude? Let's find out....
Dear Miss Manners: At a condo association meeting consisting of about 60 people, there was a head table with six people, facing about six rows of tables, about five feet away. In the front row were two ladies — not sitting next to each other — doing their needlework.
Is it proper to do needlework while at an event such as this? I noticed that the speakers were distracted (and so was I) by their movements. Between reading the directions and rearranging their work, one couldn’t help but turn their way to see what was going on. I say it is rude.
Gentle Reader: But what if they don’t have hand-held devices that enable them to check their e-mail, text message and play games while the committee is droning on?
Not that Miss Manners condones failing to pay attention at meetings, or rather, failing to look as if one is paying attention. She merely wants to make the point that there are worse distractions available. Needlework at least has precedent behind it. For centuries, ladies sat quietly doing needlework while gentlemen conversed around them, and didn’t miss a thing of what was going on.
I agree that in this day and age there are plenty of things you can do that are more distracting that knit in class....I would be lying if I said I hadn't participated in facebook messaging, even live chatting, during class--often with other folks in the same class. At least part of the issue seems to be appearances--if you're facebooking, MAYBE it looks like you're taking notes (though most professors would probably argue they can tell the difference). If you're knitting, there's no disguise, and no sense of needing one.
But I also disagree with Miss Manners' deference to precedent on this matter. I would contend that the needlework women engaged in while sitting in on gentlemen's conversation was acceptable because they were not considered part of the conversation, and not distracting because they literally were not seen. Indeed, in that period the guise of being busy with something else may have allowed many a woman to listen in where otherwise she would not have been welcome.
The problem that this person is complaining about is the opposite: people who are expected to be actively engaged, actively engaging themselves in a different activity. I won't argue that you can't knit and listen, becuase it would be pointless. You can, and many people do.. But it does convey a certain level of apartness. You can knit and listen, sure, but you can't, for example, knit and raise your hand, or knit and take notes, or knit and keep your eyes on the speaker. And these women, it seems, were doing needlework that entailed reviewing and following directions--so that surely required the majority of their attention.
So I guess I don't really know if it's "rude" or not. Knitting in unorthodox settings doesn't bother me as much as it does some of my colleagues. But I don't think Miss Manners' explanation is particularly helpful--or even relevant, so much have settings changed.