Using a cell phone at the dinner table is rude, the New York Times cements as a rule this weekend, citing a new Emily Post book of manners for children and a Zagat survey. But are there exceptions? “What if a few clicks of the smartphone can answer a question, solve a dispute or elucidate that thoughtful point you were making?” asks Bruce Feiler in his essay. “What if that PDA is not being used to escape a conversation but to enhance it?” He has a point, but it seems to have far less to do with the ubiquity of Google than it does with the obsessive personalities of people who have to know more or win an argument.
Everyone has anecdotes like the ones Feiler uses in his article, some probably as many as three daily. If trivia and critical engagement about the arts and politics are part of your mealtime fun, and you often eat socially with either friends or family, then you know what he means, especially when it comes to winning and losing an argument:
A friend of mine was recently having a meal with his wife’s sister and her new fiancé. My friend asked his future brother-in-law what song the couple would use as their first dance. “Let My Love Open the Door” by the Who, he said. “That was actually on Pete Townshend’s solo album,” my friend corrected. The fiancé politely disagreed and promptly pulled out his cellphone. After Googling the answer, the outflanked name-that-tuner told my friend curtly, “You’re right,” before proceeding to sulk for the rest of the meal.
And yet avoiding the search engine can leave a dark cloud over the table, a bitter stalemate. The most competitive person there will surely check on the car ride home or even during a trip to the bathroom. In that case, less than a minute to search at the table, thereby allowing everyone’s mind to move forward, seems worth it. And if that’s too bothersome, you probably just don’t like the personality of whoever you’re eating with. Or you’re nervous that you’re wrong.
One technological expert, critical of services like Facebook and other forms of “virtual reality,” puts it thusly: “The moment the question becomes about the technology instead of about the people then something has gone horribly wrong.” In other words, you should know by who you’re eating with whether it’s time to Google.
Another critic of the time children spend with technology also agrees with Mr. Feiler, that a quick search has more benefits than not:
“If it’s a teaching moment, and you don’t have a dictionary or reference book handy, then, yes, it’s O.K. to Google at dinner.”
“So I’ve gotten a fundamentalist from the religion of no screens to say there is an exception?” I said.
“If it’s a learning moment, go right ahead,” she sad.
But always be the one to whip out the phone. That way if you are wrong, you can just claim you don’t have service.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 11, 2010