Dear Ms. Smartphone: My roomies and I celebrated the end of the school year by getting a reservation at a famous local restaurant. You would recognize the name. When we were seated, two of them kept their phones out and used them throughout the meal. It was not to take pictures of the food either. The server did not say anything, but I found it disrespectful. Do food and phone lack etiquette? Miao, S. San Francisco
Dear Miao: As you note, lots of people use smartphones to photograph their meals and post food photos. One third of Americans say they can’t eat without their cellphones, but remember these type of headlines are Internet bait! But, to cut your friends some slack (my favorite expression) perhaps they were sending texts to others in the group who were on the way, needed directions, or running late. You would have known.
You can Google to find innumerable psychology experiments on the role of “bad” phones. Professors run trials with their undergrads and the almost universal finding is that students concentrate better, remember more, and make fewer mistakes (on exams) when the experimental condition removes phones from the room.
Food for Thought?
For this 2018 study, the researchers asked more than 300 people to go to dinner with friends and family at a restaurant. Participants were randomly assigned to either keep their phones on the table or to put their phones away during the meal. After the meal, they were asked a variety of questions, including how much they enjoyed the experience. When phones were kept on the table, participants rated the time slightly less favorably, and were more likely to feel bored.
Is Your Phone the Centerpiece?
Now let’s apply some commonsense, home-spun analysis. Many people dine by putting their phones face down on the table. I invite you to dine with me (or vice versa). In the middle of the table is a glass vase spilling over with an aromatic arrangement of greens and flowers. We remove it so we can see each other and not sneeze!
I now replace this centerpiece with a shapely carafe of red wine. We move it out, as you don’t drink. I replace it, center table, with an oversized red brick, then a kid’s water gun, next a thick unread library book, a Mexican sombrero, and so on. The point is that each of these items is evocative, and we will not completely forget about them as we converse. Like the smell of those fragrant flowers, they are still in the background.
Sherry Turkle has suggested in her recent books (2011, 2015) that the presence of the smartphone on a table- even if we don’t use it- does at least two things to our conversation. First, it moves us away from deep, important discussions (since we might get interrupted) to more trivial matters. Second, it imparts to our guest(s) that they are devalued, they have less than our full attention.
Woven In..So SPEAK UP!
Smartphones weave themselves into our daily interactions in a way that no other technology can. It is their nature to be mobile. We take them where we go, and they go with us. While we are at it, let’s not discount the role of the apple watch- when you check the time in the restaurant, and you also browsing the notifications?!
It is a vicious cycle. Perhaps this is what happened at your dinner table. When we are in a social setting that feels unfamiliar, awkward, or socially uncomfortable we are likely to pull our out phones. Then we avert the lack of words and the pregnant pauses. Meanwhile, the more we get in the habit of doing this, the more awkward and socially distant we become. A lack of practice makes perfect!
In closing, I circle back to the observation that your roomies, aka foodstagramers, might have been taking pictures of the plated food since the restaurant is so well-known. Social media has definitely changed how we think about where we go on vacation, the hobbies we post about, and where we eat. Perhaps we we give more importance and immediacy to sharing a meal with digital followers than to the actual people at the dining table! I doubt we can turn the clock back, unless we eat-in at home. Alternatively, we disconnect and vow to stay present.