Put the phone down and come to the table

While enjoying a magnificent, yet artery-clogging Monte Cristo Sandwich at The American Sector a few months back, I stopped gorging for a moment to take a sip of soda and consider a question my dining companion posed about a family sitting a few tables away from us. “Why did they even bother coming together?” she queried, and after taking a more than cursory glance in their direction, I pondered the same question myself.

A mother, father and what appeared to be their two, preteen sons were all sitting quietly, patiently awaiting the food they just ordered, but no one was talking to each other…they weren’t even looking at one another. Why? Well, they were all far too preoccupied by their smart phones. The young boys appeared to be playing games while I can only guess that the mother and father were either checking possible itineraries (they did look like tourists), texting friends or checking Facebook or Twitter feeds. They could barely peel their eyes away from the small, glowing screens when their food finally arrived.

For the rest of our lunch, I couldn’t help but continue to glance over at the strangely “estranged” family luncheon and during the entire course of the meal, they barely exchanged two words. I think I caught mother asking “Finished?” before they payed the tab (in between seemingly-important prods to their smart phones) and left together, but unnervingly apart.

When I think back long, long ago to the days when I was a preteen eating a family dinner, distracting myself from mandatory conversation with an iPhone simply was not an option. Not only was there no such thing as a smart phone, but my parents happened to highly value familial communication during meals. Sitting down at dinner, whether at home or at a restaurant, was a special time set aside to converse with one another, to get to know each other better and understand our daily trials and accomplishments. It was also a time to laugh, tell jokes or funny stories and God help the unwary friend who might cause the old rotary to ring during this sacred time.

Perhaps it’s because of my upbringing that I place so much value on human interaction when going out to eat. Whether I’m joining a troupe of co-workers for an hour away from our desks or enjoying a romantic dinner with my boyfriend, it is (to me) the height of rudeness and selfishness when my dining companion(s) spend the majority of our time together fiddling around on their smart phones. Is that email or phone call really that important? Is it a life or death situation? If not, then put the phone down and talk to me. Otherwise, what’s the point? I shouldn’t have to post a picture of your inconsiderate mug buried in your smart phone tagged with “How rude is my DC?” on Facebook to get your attention.

Now before you start screeching about how much you need your smart phone, even while dining with friends at your favorite restaurant, understand that I am not the only one who is frustrated with the lack of mealtime, face-to-face communication. If you look back in news archives over a decade ago when cellular telephones really started to become mainstream, you’ll find that restaurant owners and other patrons were already complaining.

New York Times reporter Alex Witchell published a piece back in the Spring of 1999 talking about banning cell phones in restaurants. At that time, they were irritated by ring tones and private conversations made public because of loud conversations with your 2-year-old and how he accidentally smeared his “poopie” on the family dog. One restaurant even took great pride in its steel-beamed construction that oh-so conveniently blocked cell phone reception.

More recently, the complaints stem from taking pictures of your food and posting about it on Yelp or Urbanspoon. Admittedly, I am guilty of photographing my meals, but I do this for a living, not to offer an uneducated opinion about some chef’s culinary prowess, or lack thereof, to an online crowd all too willing to jump on the bashing bandwagon. If and when I can put the smart phone down and simply eat and enjoy the company of my friends, I take full advantage.

Just a few months ago, NBC reported a story regarding Eva, a restaurant in Los Angeles that offers a 5% discount to diners who hand over their cell phones during the course of their meal. Instead of banning the phones outright, the owner offers a little honey to encourage people to enjoy their meal and each other without distraction and over half of his patrons take advantage of the offer.

Other people like me who rage against excessive smart phone usage in restaurants have come up with their own solutions. About a year ago, a popular Tumblr blog “The locking life of Lib b” posted about a new game called “Don’t Be A Di*k During Meals With Friends.” The rules of the game vary from group to group, but these are the basics:

  1. The game begins when everyone is seated.
  2. Everyone places their phone in the center of the table face down.
  3. The first person to flip over his or her phone loses and the loser pays the entire bill.
  4. If the tab comes before anyone has flipped over their phone, everyone is declared the winner and each person pays for their own meal.

The purpose of this game is to encourage people to put their phones down and talk, like we used to do in the good ‘ol days ’round the fire. Now, where’s the harm in that? You might just learn something that can’t be summed up by a mindless meme.

*Article originally published in the October 2013 issue of Where Y’at Magazine

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