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It’s Thursday, a few minutes past 7am and you are sitting in the dining room of a five-star hotel that’s part of the regular travel circuit. It could be Hong Kong or Chicago or Madrid. It could also be Vancouver, Brisbane or Paris. The scene is a familiar one and it plays out with the same characters every hour, on the hour, as the sun sweeps across the planet and a new day kicks into gear.
In a far corner of the room there’ll be a lone gentleman in cordovan loafers, pressed chinos, crisp white button-down shirt and a navy-blue blazer with brass buttons. He is reading the weekday edition of this newspaper. He doesn’t like the stresses of visiting the breakfast buffet (is it really necessary to discuss the choice of cheeses? What are the rules governing use of the toaster? Are you allowed to share if a fellow guest is just toasting one slice and there’s another slot free?) Instead, he’s ordered from the menu: scrambled eggs, multi-grain toast a little on the dark side and a strong Americano coffee.
This character might be lawyer working for an energy company; he could be a doctor consulting for a multinational pharmaceuticals group; he could even be a security adviser in the employ of a shady government; he might even be plotting a coup on the little notepad he borrowed from the waitress.
There will also be three or so women (all with slightly damp hair), huddled at one end of their table to flip through a printout of the presentation that they plan to unleash on a potential investor in a few hours. The leader is poking holes in the graphics and has found a spelling mistake. Her colleague clatters around on the highest of heels to fetch the laptop that’s sitting on the other side of a table.
Tucked behind the pillar, a mother and her young son are quietly eating their muesli and planning their day together – there’s a map spread out on the table, some well-prepared notes and a couple of articles torn from the pages of various travel glossies. The family has come along on Dad’s business trip to test the waters and see if they might like the idea of relocating to this particular city.
And, this being 2014, there are of course four or five idiots dotted around the room who are ruining an otherwise quiet, pleasant morning for everyone else. Over by the window, a man with a tablet device with a nasty vinylette cover is talking at an associate via some program that allows him to communicate with a split screen. He thinks he has the volume turned down low and is being considerate but the voice at the other end of the connection is tinny and very audible – and the pair of them speak in that annoying language of mid-level executives mixed with the up-speak inflections that have become the curse of the entire English-speaking world.
Just behind you, a husband and wife have arrived and you suspect that their room’s not ready because they’re arguing and the words you can make out are “early check-in” and “surcharge”. They are wearing almost-matching tracksuits, a look that has become a popular travel uniform for China’s upper-middle classes. They sit, pull out mobile phones and use them as if they were soldiers receiving and relaying commands via walkie-talkie.
First, the devices are held level in front of the mouth as words are spoken, and then the phones are placed near the ear to hear the response – although just far enough away that anyone within seven metres also has to listen to the other caller. Then the entire process is repeated for the next bit of the conversation.
It seems to be another now-global communications plague. Not only does using a mobile phone this way involve lot of added extra effort and movement for a form of communication that should be discreet, it also just looks plain ridiculous, with people holding their phones in the palms of their hands and talking into them as if they were Dictaphones.
Finally, that sine qua non of any public gathering these days, a pair (or posse) of inconsiderates pulling out a smartphone and playing a video clip at full volume. At breakfast, this further spoils what was once a magical hour of the day for collecting thoughts, planning the hours ahead and just soaking up the early morning light.
The US Food and Drug Administration has recently announced that it wants to look at new measures to deal with e-cigarettes and the risks associated with them. It might instead want to focus its efforts on the damage caused by people who pollute the environment with toxic conversations and who raise others’ stress levels by invading our lives with mindless banter. In the absence of legislation, headphones are also an option.
So, too, is a smooth hotel general manager who can show guests to the street.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at ft.com/brule