Either the Height of Rudeness or the Depth of Sadness
I recently went off on an epic rant regarding cell phones in theaters. You really should read it if you haven't already. :-)
Now it's time for a discussion of my second favorite place to ditch the device: restaurants.
Okay, before you all develop a bad case of trichotillomania (look it up), let me qualify that statement. As a society, we have gotten so all-fired addicted to our cellphones, especially the “smart”ones, that they've become like a natural extension of ourselves. I saw some sci-fi pic once where, in the future, the damn things would actually be grafted into our hands. For some people, it seems like that future is already a reality.
Brian X. Chen, author of “Always On,” a book about constant connectivity, when asked about phone addiction, says, “There are legitimate concerns for people and their everyday interactions. It’s generally rude to keep looking at your smartphone when you’re at dinner with your friends, for example. When you’re in a relationship, and you’re spending more time with your smartphone than you are with your partner, then you probably have a problem.”
Look, I'm as guilty as the next person of pulling out my iPhone and checking the news or the weather or the sports scores or reading a book while I'm sitting by myself at a table. In the “old days,” it would have been a newspaper or a magazine or an actual book. Nothing wrong with that if you're dining solo. What else are you supposed to do? Stare out the window? And I am equally guilty of making or taking a call when I'm eating by myself in a restaurant. But there are provisos involved.
Proviso number one, when talking on my phone in a crowded public environment, I keep my conversation short and quiet. And for cryin' out loud, I keep it private. The guy at the next table doesn't care, nor does he need to know, about what I'm supposed to pick up at the grocery store on my way home. I don't have to tell the couple seated behind me about the movie I saw last night. And I don't need to inflict my religious and/or political beliefs on a room full of complete strangers. When it comes to such things, my best advice is chiudi il cazzo di boccaccia! (Look that one up, too.) And don't get me started on the morons who actually turn on their speakerphones in a public place. That kind of stupid is beyond explanation.
Proviso number two applies to non-verbal phone usage. I don't play games on my phone, but I recognize that many people do. And I hope they recognize that I don't want to hear the “beeps” and “boops” and “zaps” and “zings” and the annoying music that accompanies most of them over at my table. Mute the sound, please. And if I'm texting or reading and the server comes by to check on me, I put the phone down and interact with the person. The only thing that might qualify as more rude than not at least making eye contact with the individual serving you would be keeping that person waiting to take your order while you finish whatever molto importante business you are conducting on your phone in their place of business. Ignorant, rude, patronizing, condescending, and a whole bunch of similar adjectives. Contrary to what your benighted reconstructed or deconstructed hippie parents taught you, you are not the center of the universe. Live with it.
These provisos apply to solo situations, of course. All bets are off when you're with other people. Regardless of whether it's a group of friends, your family, or your significant other.......keep your damn phone in your pocket! Or in its case, or wherever. To see two people.....or four, or six.....seated together at a table and completely ignoring one another as they peck away at their invasive little devices is either the height of rudeness or the depth of sadness. I haven't quite figured out which. As Chen said, “it’s generally rude to keep looking at your smartphone when you’re at dinner with your friends.”
Let's go back in time thirty years or so. If you were seated at a restaurant with three of your friends and they all pulled out a book or a magazine and sat there in silence, totally absorbed and completely disconnected from you and everything around you, that would have been seen as pretty weird, right? Nowadays, it's the thing. Perfectly normal. The fact that they may actually be texting with other people seated at the same table is considered fully acceptable. That's just freaky. When you can instantly connect with people across town or around the world, they call that “social media.” But how “social” is it when you can't connect with the person or people across the table?
Again, I'm somewhat guilty of being quick on the draw with my iPhone in restaurants and public places when in the company of others. But with restrictions and reservations. If we are discussing something and a question comes up that nobody can answer, I'll pull out my phone and Google it. If we're looking at the sky clouding up and wondering if we need to hustle, I'll bring up the radar on my Weather Channel app. But I will absolutely not start playing games or checking Facebook or texting somebody else. That is so unspeakably discourteous and impolite to the people you are with. It screams to them, “you're not important enough to be deserving of my full attention.”
On another level, restaurant owners complain about all the wannabe food critics constantly running around snapping pictures of their food to post on Facebook and Instagram and the like, often disturbing other patrons who are just there to eat (imagine!) and frequently getting in the way of employees trying to do their jobs. And yet, of course, the restaurants themselves are enabling and facilitating this anti-social social behavior by providing free Wi-Fi access to the very customers they are complaining about abusing smartphones in their establishments. Go figure.
One restaurant, though, is bucking the trend. Okay, it's in Kuala Lumpur, but the revolution's got to start somewhere, I suppose. And, naturally, it's an Italian restaurant. Antonio's Trattoria Calabria is a Wi-Fi free zone. And they inform their customers about it right up front with this droll little note posted right in the middle of the menu: "WE DO NOT HAVE Wi-Fi.” The notice goes on to quote a pertinent newspaper article: “'Malaysians are beginning to find out that their addiction to smartphones can lead to a host of problems. On top of the list are family meals where members hardly talk to each other as their attention is focused on the smartphones.' - The Star (February 12, 2012)" The reason for the policy was explained by the restaurant owner, "Something was very wrong: the sight of a family or a group of friends sitting down to a meal, with each person glued to his or her smartphone. Is that something we really wanted to encourage?"
Bravo, Antonio's! Hai tutto il mio rispetto!
Unfortunately, it's kind of a two-edged sword. By not providing Wi-Fi, a restaurant risks alienating someone like me who likes to sit quietly and read while dining alone. At the same time, providing Wi-Fi fosters continued disrespect in people who are already completely lacking in the social graces when it comes to interacting with others. So what's the answer? Maybe it can be found in the rest of the note posted on Antonio's menu. “While you're at Antonio's, enjoy the simple pleasure of a good conversation. Talk. Laugh. Eat. Enjoy.”
Yeah, I know. That's likely to have as much effect on entitled ignoramuses as those “Please Silence Your Cellphones and Refrain From Texting” notices posted on movie screens. But even if it only inspires a few people to put down the phone and pick up the conversation, it's a good start. And if those inspired few have kids who can be similarly influenced......well, maybe the trend can be reversed. At this stage in our arrested social development, it might be a task that is both Herculean and Sisyphean, but what's the harm in trying? Put down the phone, look across the table, and talk to the person or people you're with. Who knows? You might find that you actually like them.
Oh! A new cat video on Facebook! Sorry, that's much more important than talking to any of you. I'm gonna go watch this. BBFN!