Friday, February 10, 2012

Go Ahead: Use Your iPhone at the Table

I haven't been writing a lot about etiquette in recent years, but I'm still occasionally asked to talk about manners matters of the day -- journalists working on etiquette-related articles find me online and ask for a few quotes.

It happened today: A journalist wanted to ask me about the use of mobile devices in restaurants (a common topic) -- and as is frequently the case, she expected me to deplore their use. She had pre-cast me as a prim manners maven with sensibilities firmly rooted in a pre-smartphone era: She wanted some quotes along these lines: "No phones at the table! Smartphones at the table are making us ruder and ruining civilization!"

The problem is, I just don't think that's true.

Disagreeing with Myself
I flipped back through my book to see what I'd had to say -- way back in the early 2000s -- about cell-phone use, and I found some quotes that would've have pleased this reporter. For instance:

"People who use their cell phones to carry on chitchatty conversations when dining look, to those around them, not only rude but also silly...."

Yes, I still agree with that one. Then there's:

"Keep cell phones ... off of the table during a meal."  

On this point, my attitude has evolved.

Here's the thing: Smartphones aren't, in and of themselves, rude. People behave rudely; machines are just tools. You can be just as rude at the dinner table with a facial expression or a gesture as you can with a mobile device.

I think it's naive to say that this or that new technology is "ruining civilization" -- keep in mind, people have been saying this with every new technology that's come along since the printing press. The tone of the absolutist anti-smartphone crowd sounds very similar to the tone of, say, the absolutist "anti-unescorted-ladies-in-saloons" crowd and the "anti-teaching-poor-people-to-read" crowd. Their cry is "It just isn't done!"

As someone interested in etiquette, I always ask, "Why isn't it done?" There's always manners friction at times of great change -- when old assumptions about the way things ought to be done bump into new technologies or social mores.

New technologies don't make us ruder. New technologies make us different 

What's So Rude About Texting, Anyway?
We understand that obtrusive noise is rude -- this includes loud cell-phone conversations in otherwise subdued environments, such as restaurants. I wrote my book way back when using a portable phone was likely to mean talking into it -- how quaint, right? But now we're using our smartphones primarily for silent activities -- so what's the problem?

Well, the other reason that using your smartphone at the table is rude is this: It's disrespectful of the people you're dining with -- it takes your attention away from your shared meal, and shared meals are highly symbolic (being that they are the very basis of human civilization).

So it's this display of disrespect that's the problem, not the device (you could be just as disrespectful by turning your chair a bit to one side).

But not everyone feels disrespected by others' using mobile devices -- and this group is growing. For instance, I frequently dine with a set of friends whom I also interact with on various social platforms, and with whom I share a large interconnected group of friends. With these friends, using my iPhone to quickly tweet my location isn't disrespectful -- because we're all familiar with the activity. At a business lunch, it's now quite normal for a group of acquainted colleagues to pause and check in with their BlackBerries. These things are happening; it's time to remove the absolutist ban.

When in doubt about the attitudes of your companions, it's always better to err on the side of caution -- but the complexity of the real world means that "Never do this" rules don't make sense. You have to pay attention to context. As is often the case with questions of proper behavior, the answer to "Is it rude to use your smartphone at the table?" has to be "It depends, dear. Use your common sense, and employ moderation."

Looking to the Future
Recently, a Los Angeles Times story discussed how restaurants are resisting, or adapting to, this change in the way we behave. It struck me that the restauranteurs who wanted to ban smart devices from their dining rooms were objecting primarily to the aesthetics of them -- their basic argument is that the people using them looked tacky. Fair enough. But "tacky" is subjective -- and yesterday's tacky (men without ties and jackets in nice restaurants) is tomorrow's normal. I was much more interested in reading how restaurants are adapting to the new normal.

In some ways, I am old-fashioned. I don't think a phone should be set down on the table, usually -- but there have to be exceptions. When I dine alone (as I often do when I'm traveling), I prop my iPad on the table to read -- call it tacky if you must.

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