Saturday, December 10, 2011

Great Meals, Bad Company: Is It Rude to Send and Receive Text Messages at the Dinner Table?

Last night I had possibly the most delicious non-Thai-food meal I've had in Bangkok (cream of corn and crab meat soup, and penne with Italian sausage, basil and juicy cherry tomatoes!). To borrow from 13th U.S. President Millard Filmore's final words, the nourishment was more than palatable.

The company? Not so much.

It's not that he wasn't chatty. Au contraire, we touched on a variety of topics, from diabolical exes to cartoon characters we're sure are gay (my picks: Yogi and Boo-Boo, Tweety, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck; his: Tom and Jerry). And he picked up his half of the tab: 500 baht, or about $17, making it the most expensive meal I've had since I arrived in Southeast Asia.

So what made me wish I'd been able to enjoy this fantastic Italian meal in the company of no one? My dinner companion's buzzing cell phone. For the first 30 minutes after we sat down, he kept picking it up, reading and typing. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned, there he was, typing away. I made a mental note to myself -- How obnoxious! -- but I held my tongue. Then a beautiful couple sat down at the table next to us. The woman didn't look at the menu, or her date. She was too busy staring at her cell phone.

I couldn't keep quiet any longer. "That's so rude," I said. "She's having dinner with her gorgeous boyfriend, and she can't stop looking at her stupid phone." It was a passive-aggressive move on my part, but I'd made my point. My dinner companion knew I was talking about him, too.

"Well, how do you know they are boyfriend and girlfriend," he said, obviously trying to change the subject.

"Well, they're clearly not just platonic friends."

"Maybe they're married."

I decided I wasn't going to let him off the hook anymore. "Regardless, it's extremely rude to fiddle with your cell phone, or iPhone, or whatever, at the dinner table. If someone you love isn't being rushed to the hospital, there's no emergency that can't wait until 9 o'clock." (It was 8.11pm.)

There, I said it. He explained that the reason he had been on his earlier was because his friend had sent him a text asking if he was going to join him and some other people for dinner, and he didn't want to leave him/them hanging. He had already blown them off in order to accept my last-minute invitation.

I was flattered, but it was a flimsy excuse -- and it didn't explain 30 minutes of back and forth. Why hadn't he sent his friend a text message before dinner telling him that he'd made other plans? In order to avoid being rude to his friend, to whom he had already been extremely rude, he was being rude to me. None of it made any sense, but by then I'd lost interest in him and his excuses. I was more interested in the question of general cell-phone etiquette, at the dinner table and elsewhere.

Have we become so plugged in that we're constantly distracted, never truly living in the moment, enjoying -- and respecting -- the people who are right in front of us? I go out to bars, and I see guys standing around texting -- maybe sexting -- or trying to score on Grindr, and I go out to dinner and see whomever is sitting across from me doing the same.

Sometimes I miss the good old days when we focused our attention on our present company, unless someone hotter happened to pass by. We'd scold a dinner date for paying more attention to someone at another table than to us, or someone hitting on us in a bar while constantly looking over our shoulder, so what makes lavishing so much attention on a cell phone any different? There's nothing wrong with turning it off for an hour when you're having dinner with someone, or putting it away when you're ordering at the bar, or dancing shirtless on the stage.

Answering your cell phone during dinner, particularly in the middle of an intense conversation, may not be as bad as excusing yourself to go outside and have a smoke, leaving your dinner companion alone at the table (yes, I've been there, too), but it comes pretty close. Years ago, I went on a first date with a guy who interrupted our discussion to answer his cell phone during dinner and proceeded to talk to whomever was on the other line for a good five minutes. It was July 4th, and as we watched the fireworks later on, I decided that I wouldn't be seeing him again.

And then there was Paolo, an Italian I met in New York City in 1999. It was love at first sight. A few months later, I went to visit him in Milan. We had a lovely time together, in-between his cell-phone conversations. I appreciated that he usually kept them short and sweet (and I was charmed by how he answered it: "Pronto!"), but we could barely make it through a sentence without the damn thing ringing, and he always had to answer it. I saw him a few years ago in Buenos Aires, and I was shocked -- and thrilled -- that not once during dinner were we interrupted by his cell phone. Maybe over the course of 10 years, he'd learned that there's a time and place for everything.

My dinner date last night apparently doesn't believe in such boundaries. He accused me of not living in the 21st century. If he has the means to be in constant contact with his friends, why not take advantage of it? It's not that I'm old-fashioned, but technology doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to exercise good table manners. Just as you shouldn't take a week, or more, to respond to text messages and emails, there's no need to read and respond to every single one as it comes in. Has the Facebook/iPhone age created a civilization of uncivilized people who have such sophisticated means of communicating but no longer know how to communicate?

A few weeks ago I lost my Thai cell phone, and one of the reasons why I haven't replaced it is because I wanted to see if I could get through a few hours -- or a workout -- without being reachable. (Surprise! I can.) I remember once, about a year before I left New York City, I texted a guy on whom I had an unrequited crush while I was working out. It was 8am on a Saturday morning.

"Where are you at this early hour?" he responded a few minutes later.

"I'm at the gym."

"Good for you. But shouldn't you be paying attention to the weights and not sending texts?"

He had a point. I put the phone away and returned to my workout. My dinner date last night wasn't going to go down without a fight, though. He made some truly ridiculous arguments, like this one: Since he's known his friend longer than he's known me, politeness to his friend takes precedence. So how would he explain blowing off his friend, to whom he owes a greater degree of courtesy, to dine with me?

Dinner was over, and so was the conversation.

"Check, please."

As I went off into the night -- alone -- I made a mental note that I'd definitely be returning to that restaurant -- alone.
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