I consider myself to be a man of few words. Note exactly taciturn, but not loquacious either. Despite my predilection toward using fewer words, rather than more, to express myself, I do like to stay connected to the world around me. To accomplish this I, like many of you, carry my iPhone everywhere. I think most everyone, with the possible exception of my marketing guy who only uses his to tell his wife he’s on the way home or to order pizza while he’s stuck in traffic, subscribes to this philosophy. Despite my desire to remain in contact with my co-workers, friends and family, I do think that the best way to converse with people is face to face. That’s probably why when I sit down to a meal with friends, business associates and especially my family I turn my phone off. Maybe this is just due to the way I was raised—we didn’t answer the phone during dinner at the Crosby household, and this was even before we had an answering machine. Mealtime was when your attention was supposed to be focused on the others gathered around the table. I guess this explains why I was stunned to hear Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg declare that it was not rude to check your Facebook page during dinner.
Obviously, this is an etiquette issue that has only arisen in the past five or ten years. Emily Post could tell you to always put the forks on the left and the spoons on the right, but she never had to deal with her dinner companion tweeting about the quality of the sorbet between courses. Since Emily died in 1960, the only mealtime boundary pushing technology she ever had to deal with was the television. I feel safe in saying that her advice would have been to “turn it off”.
But is this the correct response in this age of non-stop connectivity?
I have noticed a growing trend for all participants a restaurant table to be absorbed in whatever they happened to be viewing on their glowing screens. Naturally, I wondered why they all didn’t ask for single tables, or to at least sit at the bar; but maybe physical proximity fulfills some need that talking to each other doesn’t. Or at least verbally communicating with someone else, since a woman who used to work for me said that she and her boyfriend often ate entire meals while texting to each other, although they were seated across the table. Shakespeare said that “Brevity is the soul of wit”, but I don’t think he meant 147 characters of less.
Perhaps our relatively new capability to never be out of touch can be viewed from a positive perspective; as due to the unceasing bombardment of tweets, posts, and texts that we receive, we should always have new things to discuss. Unfortunately, it seems that the more we have to talk about, the less we actually do. Sometimes it seems like many of us have adopted the philosophy of why speak when a thumbs up or emoticon will convey our thoughts for us.
Other than something like, “Your house is on fire”—and you can probably set up a special ring tone for that—what is so important that you would ignore your guests to see “OMG, just saw the cutest cat pic”. Are we devolving into a nation of narcissists where our every move and thought must be chronicled regardless of where we are or who we are with? Perhaps I’m speaking from a different time, but, yes, it is rude to check your Facebook page, tweet or make calls during dinner. But more importantly, I have to ask, “Despite our ability for non-stop communication, why is it that when we actually have a chance to do it on a personal level, we have so little to say?”