Your Smartphone Ruined My Dinner

We all know it's rude. But the burning desire to fiddle with your phone during a meal is more than just a dining faux pas. As we ignore our companions we're also ignoring the food itself—just mashing glass screens while we let it go cold.

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Jul 22 2014, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Christopher Cotrell

When was the last time you lasted an entire meal without checking your phone? You probably can't remember because we're a world of smartphone addicts, unable to spend more than a few minutes away from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or, God help us, Google +.

Whether it's adding photos, putting status updates on blast, or simply pawing at the thing, we can't get enough of these shiny rectangles that have crept, via our pockets, into dining rooms and restaurants everywhere. Look around any modern eatery and you'll see a new ritual; before any food may pass your lips, thou shalt take a picture and thou shalt seek likes.

Constantly checking your phone at dinner is, simply put, a way of telling your company that there's a better conversation going on somewhere in the digital ether. There's even a name for this curious phenomenon: phubbing.

Are we adding something to the food experience by bringing our iPhone to the party, or is this the worst thing to happen in dining since TGI Friday's opened its doors?

So why do we now think it's acceptable to constantly fiddle with our phones when we sit around the table to break bread, rather than simply enjoying the company of others? Are we adding something to the food experience by bringing our iPhone to the party, or is this the worst thing to happen in dining since TGI Friday's opened its doors?

One of the most significant developments in the relationships between smartphones and food was the coining of the phrase food porn. This deeply unsexy term has crowbarred its way into popular culture, bringing with it an endless photographic supply of poorly focused pucks of grease from pop-up burger restaurants all over the world, and an erroneous assumption that someone, somewhere, gives a shit about them.

Now, few meals seem to go by without some kind of photographic evidence being added to the millions of food photos already boring the living hell out of the NSA. While the experience of eating has become more sociable in the digital sense, it's at the expense of human interaction as we increasingly feel the need to connect to the lives that exist through our phones rather than the squishy, corporeal kind you can look at in the mirror at right now.

We're checking our phones over 150 times a day, according to a 2013 Internet Trends report, and looking at my little Steve Jobs machine across the table now, I can see why. I just want to push her belly button and bring her to life, gurgling up a colorful world of talking blue birds, Amaro filters, and strangers giving me fleeting praise.

We seek out a cacophony of digital voices, but struggle to compute with the people in front of us.

In the past few years we have seen a shift from seeking approval through conversation with our peers to adopting social media as the platform of choice for recycling jokes, exaggerating anecdotes, and perfecting the humblebrag. Researchers at the Free University of Berlin found that individuals seeking approval are more likely to be intense Facebook users, demonstrating how desire and fulfilment feed each other to guarantee we will keep returning to an online world where gratification is easier to come by.

Deep musings aside, in real terms this means that we've got ourselves into a cultural tailspin with more and more phone use and, as studies from Baylor's Hankamer School of Business shows, we are now driven by addictive compulsion rather than casual habit when it comes to using mobile phones.

So why can't we even put them down for one hour to enjoy a meal with friends? We seek out a cacophony of digital voices, but struggle to compute with the people in front of us. Sharing food should be the most social of experiences, swapping stories with guests and gesticulating wildly as food flies out of your mouth. Now expect to be frequently interrupted by the unmistakable silence that characterizes a surreptitious phone check and gasps to whatever sub-tweet argument is being played out elsewhere.

Eating with a manic phone checker is boring and tedious, but unavoidable. For all my bile—well, I'm a phone-checker. Correction: I'm a phone-roller. Device facedown for the impression of politeness but rolling it over every few minutes just to check who loves me and how much. Nobody's perfect, OK?

And for such a pathetic underachiever when it comes to social media (my top liked picture on Instagram is a year-old shot of me sticking an ice lolly up my nose) I will check in every so often, popping my head above the parapet just to make sure I'm not missing out on something. But what exactly would we miss in the time it takes to serve between one and three courses? And why do we insist on putting the food second to social media chatter? Could it be that for all our generation's posturing of being, like, really fucking good at food we're actually just mashing glass screens while we let it go cold?

Researchers have found that that even having a phone present on the table can be damaging to your personal relationships.

One New York restaurant seems to think so. In an already oft-quoted Craigslist post, a restaurant owner admitted that he compared surveillance footage filmed a decade apart to determine why complaints from customers were on the rise. In a nutshell, we're too busy dicking around with our phones to properly enjoy the dining experience.

What's contained in that post is hardly watertight evidence (maybe your service is slow because the staff are watching hours of CCTV footage from 2004?) but the way it ignited the collective ire of the Internet demonstrates what a sore subject phone etiquette has become.

The media often salivate over news that restaurants are implementing, however casual, phone bans. Private members clubs the world over are notoriously authoritarian with their "no phones" policy, but then if you're at a member's club you're a wanker, so just be cool and abide by their wanker rules.

However, aside from annoying the shit out of anyone you arrived with, using Instagram whilst eating has been proven to actually make your food taste worse, which has got to be a kick in the teeth for the booming number of restaurants that are all aboard the social media wagon. And as if that wasn't enough, the University of Essex have found that even having a phone present on the table can be damaging to your personal relationships.

So what can I do to stop? It's actually really easy: just stop. No one will miss me for a couple of hours. They won't miss me for days. Considering the average Twitter user has 208 followers, I'm going to go ahead and assume you won't be missed either. But someone will be very happy to have you back—that lovely person sat opposite you at dinner.