Dear Belladonna Rogers,
At a restaurant dinner with friends, I was looking forward to an enjoyable, sociable evening, only to find that one of my friends never stopped checking his emails while another took every cell phone call she received. These were not emergency calls — I could understand those. These were simply the normal electronic clutter of everyday life. I’m 64 and my dinner partners were both in their late 20s. They’re former students of mine. Why bother to meet two friends at a restaurant if you can’t divorce yourself from your technology?
iWonder in Wisconsin
What you describe can be summarized in five words: a generational clash of cultures.
In the culture of your generation, this conduct would be deemed rude. In the culture of many in their teens, 20s, and 30s, it’s par for the course.
For people who enjoy connecting with others — and some of the comments on a recent advice column made clear that there are many who do not — the generational divide is this: while younger people are happy to connect with others face-to-face and through technology simultaneously, their elders prefer to connect with their friends, family and colleagues either in person or technologically, but not both at once. When they socialize with younger people, they tend to expect undivided attention and feel insulted, as you did, when they don’t receive it.
By contrast, the majority of younger people, as well as the more tech-forward segment of people in their 50s and beyond, are comfortable with — and are far from offended by — multi-socializing, the act of enjoying the companionship of their friends, family, and colleagues both in person and through texts and cell calls, all at the same time, with no offense intended, nor any taken.
Typically, but not universally, younger people take multi-socializing for granted. By and large, their elders are both less accustomed to it and far less tolerant of it.
The biggest problems arise when different generations gather together, or seek to communicate with each other, each with its own preferred tribal customs.
When young people, even your own children or grandchildren, behave as your friends did over dinner, you’re entirely justified in informing them that although such behavior may fly with their contemporaries, it doesn’t with their elders.
I recently spoke with a 31-year-old about how he copes with these matters. I was stunned to learn that when he cooks dinner for himself, he also watches the news on TV, listens to music on the speakers of his iPod “as background music for the news,” talks with friends via a Bluetooth earbud with his iPhone “so I can be hands-free,” while he reads and responds to emails on his laptop on the counter next to the stove. By my count, that’s six activities at once, five of them technology-based.
When he’s out with friends at a bar or restaurant, he assured me, all his friends text, accept calls, and even initiate calls during meals together and no one feels dissed or insulted in the slightest.
This young man is bright. But it isn’t his intelligence that separates him from members of his parents’ generation. What distinguishes his age cohort from that of his parents is that his generation has been multitasking with technology since childhood. Adding one more tech tool isn’t a major challenge for his age-mates or for those who are younger.
The compulsive urge for constant connection is not, however, confined to the young. In terms of etiquette, however, it is more universally accepted by the younger generation. Even so, here’s a report of a recent meeting of men and women in their 50s and 60s:
While it may be pervasive among the young, it’s all too prevalent among their elders, as well. I’ve observed it time and again: people answering cell calls in restaurants, talking at the top of their lungs on crowded buses, etc. The other day I invited our new CEO to dinner with the division I head, and one of my colleagues, a normally civilized person, whipped out his cellphone to check his email, surf the web, and goodness knows what else — at dinner with the new CEO. This need for constant communication, accompanied by faux sighs about the never-ending stream of emails, has become a cliché of our era and is redefining what good manners are, and in an ugly way. It may be a lost cause, but one can certainly teach one’s children what is acceptable and what is not, no matter how much technological temptation abounds.
THE WAY IT WAS
We could all, in theory, agree that the manners our parents and grandparents instilled in us require some modifications to accommodate the times. Many of us can remember when the family dinner hour was all but sacred. Most people didn’t think of calling their friends during a mealtime 60 years ago, except in an emergency.
Receiving a telephone call was an exciting event, not something that occurred every few moments. Women, who were advised not to initiate calls to men (too “forward”), yearned for the telephone to ring.
Today, the concept of sacred time that cannot be interrupted by technology is now reserved to the religious. Those who don’t hold the Sabbath sacred receive and respond to emails and telephone calls almost 24/7.
ONE WAY TO UNDERSTAND THE URGE TO USE A SMART PHONE AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE
Although your young friends’ compulsion to use their smart phones at dinner was offensive to you, it might be helpful if you could think of their behavior as a contemporary equivalent of the habit of smoking in the past. Before the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964, Americans smoked everywhere — at home, in their offices, in restaurants, in elevators, and on public transport, including aboard airplanes. Tens of millions were addicted to nicotine. Today, while smoking is taboo in many shared public spaces, the addiction to smart phones is reminiscent of the compulsion to smoke.
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
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