How to use your phone at the table responsibly

In this day and age, it’s inevitable that people will use their phones in restaurants. We just need some rules of etiquette to abide by, says our columnist.

Mobile phones taking pictures of ramen

Do phones have a place on our dining tables? I have been mulling that over ever since I attended an event at The Chester Grosvenor hotel. This bastion of old-school luxury had assembled an expert panel (and me!) for a live debate on restaurant etiquette and, not for the first time that day, this question cast me – yes, the grey, grizzly bear that I am – as the panel’s hip, young gunslinger. In that, I am pretty relaxed about phones (and I was not wearing a tie).

To me, this is a fait accompli. Phones are everywhere. Resist their use in restaurants and many establishments will go bust. People are so attached to their phones that, as a 2018 YouGov survey found, 55% of us check them during dinner.

And why not? As an issue, phone use at mealtimes triggers a certain kind of foodie: mindful eaters who chew each mouthful 17 times, for whom erudite conversation is the only acceptable sound at the table. That discipline may even work at home (a subject I will return to another time), but busy restaurants offer endless distraction. Phones are just another detail in this overall audio-visual hubbub. Using them is fine, if you follow some basic rules of discretion.

For instance, no-one should ever have to endure some self-important berk (a middle-aged businessman, usually), giving it the full Foghorn Leghorn on their phone at the next table. Likewise, a thousand curses on those who, incapable of putting their phone on silent, subject adjacent tables to the ping-ping-ping of their every text and email.

Person taking photo of croissants on mobile phone

Nor am I going to sit there placidly while a relative or mate stares fixedly at a screen all night. Generally, phones should be face-down on the table on silent, so we are not constantly glancing at them. But the idea we won’t use them at all is ludicrous. A few quick texts, calls or tweets? Not only are these often necessary (guiding friends in; checking on babysitters; Googling arcane trivia), but they are no great interruption, either. We are adept, these days, at keeping the conversation flowing even as we use our phones.

A similarly confected controversy (a non-troversy?) has arisen around photos. That table straining for selfies? They are doing you no harm. This is the age of documented, performative leisure and, to an extent, we are all guilty. Who among us has never snapped a dish for the ’gram? I would suggest you post your pictures later, after dinner. Right now, concentrate on the food. But feel free to capture those dishes, first. The only people truly aggrieved by this are chefs, who, the precious darlings, cannot abide seeing badly-lit, blurry shots of their dishes on TripAdvisor. But you are paying for this food. It is your call.

So is choosing to entertain your children with electronic devices. The idea that colouring books are okay, but phones = parental neglect, mystifies me. As does the claim that in French or Spanish restaurants the same children would be sat obediently discussing their favourite cured meats. It’s a myth. In my experience, European kids are equally fond of playing games on papa’s phone.

In good restaurants, parents want to talk, enjoy in peace the food which they are paying handsomely for and, if only for a few hours, feel like autonomous adults again (newsflash: kids are exhausting). They simply want their children seated and quiet. Restaurants are therefore precisely the place to hand out the tablets (not medical sedatives sadly, but the next best thing). As long as those kids have their headphones on as they watch Frozen, who are you to judge?

Read more articles by Tony Naylor

Do you use your phone at the dinner table? Leave a comment below...

Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.

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