Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 17 1998 3:30 AM

ASK PRUDENCE

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Prudence, drawing on her rich experience of life, will answer questions submitted by readers. She will respond to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, economics, and other subjects. Questions should be sent to Prudence@slate.com. They should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.

Dear Prudence,

I just had lunch at a local Internet cafe. I brought my own laptop and wireless modem, the better to read Slate in its full framed glory. I was (slowly) downloading full images while everyone else was using Lynx. I did order a cheese sandwich, and nobody gave me any dirty looks, but even so, I felt a little guilty about not spending any money for my online experience. Is it rude to bring your own digital device to an Internet cafe? What about bringing food but paying for a terminal?

--Sincerely,Somewhere in Seattle

P.S. To be specific, I'm at www.speakeasy.org, and I just finished my tasty sandwich.

Dear Somewhere in Seattle,

Prudence had never heard of an Internet cafe until she received your letter. Apparently such things do not exist east of the Rockies or north of 25 years of age. I have, however, consulted the Web site to which you refer, and now have a clue as to the subject of your query.

As I understand it, the cafe provides computers and modems for the use of its patrons for a fee and also sells food. Your question is whether it is improper for you to bring your own laptop and wireless modem, thus bypassing the fee, and to buy only a cheese sandwich.

The management of the cafe has established the rules for the use of their facility. Since they have let you in and have not kicked you out, it appears that you have not violated any of those rules. You are not being rude. But if there are many people like you, and especially if you are occupying space that might be occupied by a paying customer, the management will change the rules. They will establish a cover charge or require a minimum food purchase for the use of a table. The situation will be like that in a cabaret, where you cannot sit down at a table and watch the show without paying something.