People have always felt the need to do something with their hands to control anxiety. The familiar rituals of striking a match, lighting a cigarette, smoking and holding the cigarette controlled a lot of that nervousness. So, too, do the worry beads of the eastern Mediterranean:
Today’s technology provides a similarly soothing sense that one’s hands are constructively tethered not to a cigarette or to worry beads but to a smart phone, with its pleasing plethora of buttons and keys to press, calming tensions and keeping us all connected in the bargain.
Smart phones not only reduce anxiety by giving jittery fingers a focus, they also connect their owners to everyone in his or her life and to the news of the day at any given nano-second. For those who once fantasized about having a news service teletype machine in their bedrooms, a smart phone gives them the same satisfying shot of up-to-the-minute news at their fingertips. The answers to a veritable myriad of questions is in a tiny, portable piece of technology. For the curious, those burning for answers to arcane, bizarrely irritating inquiries, this is nothing less than manna from Heaven.
Is it any wonder that people are loath to turn them off and put them away?
COPING WITH THE WAY IT IS
As for your experience with your two younger friends, it would be entirely reasonable for you to tell them that after your last meal “together” you’d like them to agree to some ground rules before you join them in the future.
Among the guidelines would be that no one will check incoming emails or take non-emergency telephone calls. Anyone who can’t keep to such an agreement should at least go to the rest room and do his or her email-checking and telephone-calling from there.
You can make clear to them that you’d be happy to get together if you’ll be taking part in a genuine exchange and won’t be interrupting an evening of techno-communication with others who aren’t at the table with you.
If your friends can’t accept this condition, you could respond that you’ll stay home and let them telephone you while they’re having dinner with someone else. At least that way you’ll get to talk with them.
Despite your efforts to prevent a recurrence, if it does happen again, you could rise from the table, leaving them a note you printed out beforehand that would say something like this:
“I accepted your dinner invitation in the belief that we’d get to talk together and catch up. Apparently, this was not as important to you as the phone calls you’ve taken, without so much as an apology or an explanation. I have a lot to do, so I’m heading out to do it. Enjoy your calls and your dinner.”
They have a simple choice to make: They can play with their tech toys or have the benefit of your company. They just can’t have both.
People who accept or make calls in front of others often behave as if they’re offering others the riveting thrill of hearing some really fascinating conversation on their side of a phone call. It’s rarely as exciting as they imagine. “Uh huh,” “Yeah,” “Sure,” “Absolutely,” and “We’re expecting 22″ aren’t quite as stimulating to overhear as they may think. There are limits to the pleasures of eavesdropping.
If you’re getting together with only one friend and you can tell that he or she is getting antsy about being out of touch with colleagues or family members, you could say, “Should we both check our emails for a few minutes?” to put the other person out of his or her agony.
I have one such friend to whom I say that at least once during each meal whenever we get together. I’d prefer that he be calmer and fully engaged in our conversation than on edge and suffering from extreme iPhone withdrawal symptoms.
WHAT IF YOU’RE THE ONE EXPECTING AN IMPORTANT CALL DURING A MEAL WITH FRIENDS?
If you’re in the other position — that of someone expecting a genuinely important call during your planned meal with friends — I suggest mentioning this as soon as you sit down with your companions, apologizing in advance, saying you’ll keep the call as brief as possible, but that you have a patient, a baby-sitter, editor, client, or whoever it is who may need to contact you and whose call you will have to take.
That way your friends will be prepared for your absence from the table, and they’ll understand that you know it’s rude, but that there are extenuating circumstances.
I think the advance warning makes all the difference because it accords deference to the tradition of being present and attentive to the person or group with whom you’ve agreed to share a meal, while acknowledging that you are, in one way or another, “on call” and may, regretfully, have to absent yourself from your friends for a few moments.
What most of us seek at the heart of our interpersonal relations are kindness and consideration. Setting some simple guidelines before the meal begins should make future get togethers more enjoyable.
— Belladonna Rogers
Do you have questions? Belladonna Rogers has answers. Send your questions or comments about politics, personal or cultural matters, or anything else that’s on your mind, and Belladonna will answer as many as possible. The names, geographic locations and email addresses of all advice-seekers are confidential and will remain undisclosed to protect the identity of the questioner. Send your questions or comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org