Has Instagram ruined our table manners?
Photo: Getty images
Stephanie Wood channels legendary American etiquette writer Emily Post.
Dear Mrs Post,
First, thank you so much for your guidance over the years on the matter of hosting formal dinners without the assistance of a maid. It really was such a tremendous relief to me to learn that it was possible to entertain my friends and acquaintances in the surrounds of my own home without such an aid; that while a maid was essential for a formal dinner, I could manage a “gracious, if informal, dinner” on my own without succumbing to a nervous breakdown.
I’m hoping now you might be able to advise me in what might well be a more challenging question of etiquette. I understand, of course, that the world has indeed changed considerably since you were a part of the Best Society. That in matters of civility, conduct, comportment and courtesy, there has been a relaxation, a great thaw, a mighty defrosting of social mores and manners.
But I do hope that you might be able to bring to bear your great wisdom to help me with this contemporary question of etiquette that troubles me: what is the etiquette regarding the use of electronic gadgetry at the restaurant table.
Examples of this issue abound. Why, just the other day, at a fine establishment, I witnessed four diners at a nearby table each simultaneously eating their entrées and using their telephones. Not a word of conversation passed between them. A fifth companion at the table sat mutely, seemingly in a state of some despondency.
I have myself been a victim in such a situation, as dining partners have found it necessary to ceaselessly fiddle and twiddle with their devices.
I confess that, when on a recent evening at a notable city eating house I witnessed a young woman at a nearby table typing into a portable computer while another took photographs of the food on her plate and a third talked on her telephone, I felt a great rage rise up within me. It was all I could do not to stand and deliver my thoughts on the matter to these young women in no uncertain terms.
And I must add that on more than one occasion recently I have visited restaurants and witnessed tables at which adults conversed while children were immersed dumbly in tablet or game devices.
Dear Mrs Post, I beseech you, please share your advice. Until I have some clarification, some resolution on this matter, I fear that dining out, previously an activity of some pleasure for me, will be a troubling, vexatious experience.
Dear Ms Wood,
First, if you will indulge me, I am inclined to remind my loyal readers of the words of my editor and dear friend Mr Richard Duffy, of Funk & Wagnalls publishing house, who most kindly wrote a wise and penetrating introduction to my first book on the subject of etiquette:
‘People who ridicule etiquette as a mass of trivial and arbitrary conventions, "extremely troublesome to those who practise them and insupportable to everybody else," seem to forget the long, slow progress of social intercourse in the upward climb of man from the primeval state.’
Indeed, far greater minds than mine have drawn the connection between manners and morality. I do not believe it an exaggeration to state that our mastery of knife, fork and spoon contributed to our progression from the dark ages of depravity and barbarism to those of enlightenment and righteousness.
But, of course, as I believe Mr Dylan identified, the times are changing, and we must, alas, move ever onwards, cheerfully, optimistically. And we must move onwards without fear that a loosening of the corsetry of etiquette and the arrival of smartphone technology will plunge us back into savagery. Indeed, sometimes we must even use chopsticks.
Nevertheless, I find that I have some sympathy with your position. I too struggled to maintain my composure at a recent luncheon engagement when a young woman at a proximate table spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time talking stridently into her portable telephone about a young gentleman of her acquaintance without so much as an “I beg your pardon”.
I felt inclined to remind her of one of my fundamental maxims of social engagement: an instinctive “consideration for the rights and feelings of others is not merely a rule for behaviour in public but the very foundation upon which social life is built.”
And, it must be said, these are not victimless crimes. I was so discombobulated by this young lady’s risqué conversation that I used my fish knife to butter my bread. But surely the greatest victim is society itself. Are the youth of today not the elders of the future?
Your letter has spurred me to consider the rules of modern manners; perhaps it is time even to consider the need for an addendum to my book — to be titled, Etiquette in the Age of Social Media and Electronic Gadgetry.
Perhaps as a start, however, I can offer to my loyal readers the following rules for decorous behaviour in the contemporary restaurant environment:
- A portable telephone should not be laid on a restaurant table. It is not a piece of flatware. If an emergency telephone call is expected, or the telephone might be required for some other purpose, the telephone may be turned on to vibrational mode and laid on the lap underneath the napkin.
- A portable telephone should not be used to check a football game’s scores during a restaurant meal unless all parties at the table have a mutual and deep interest in that football game.
- A portable telephone can be used to check the facts in a matter of dispute or curiousity pertinent to the conversation but should be returned to the lap once the matter of dispute is settled.
- A portable telephone can be used briefly to show photographs of infants and then returned to the lap. Under no circumstances should it be used to show holiday snapshots or real estate photographs.
- Unless urgent messages are expected, a portable telephone should not be checked during the meal. It is acceptable, once the bill has arrived, to check the portable telephone for messages briefly.
- If a call must be taken, the receiver of the call should excuse him or herself from the table and adjourn to a quiet area of the restaurant where other customers can’t be disturbed, returning to the table as swiftly as possible.
- A portable phone or camera can be used to take photographs of the food on the table under the following circumstances: a) if the photographer has first asked other diners at the table if this is acceptable; b) if the photographer has turned off the flash on his or her camera; c) if the photographer does not expect other diners at the table to wait until the photography is completed to eat their food; and, d) if the photographer is aware that, by taking photographs of the food in front of him or her, he or she will be seen by one and by all as a buffoon.
- Under no circumstances should videos be shown on a portable telephone during a restaurant meal, especially videos of crazy Korean pop music or cats on toilet seats.
- Under no circumstances should portable telephones be used to skite on social media about the desirability of the restaurant the diner is eating at.
- While seated in a restaurant, under no circumstances should a portable telephone be used to consult Urbanspoon or other similar website.
- Under no circumstances should a diner converse on a portable telephone while simultaneously using hand gestures to direct waiting staff.
- A portable telephone is permitted to be used freely, and in whatever fashion the user desires, if the user adjourns to the restroom.
- Portable computers, telephones and gaming devices should not be used to buy children’s silence at a restaurant.
Indeed, as readers of my book will know, “children can scarcely be too young to be taught the rudiments of etiquette .... Training a child is exactly like training a puppy; a little heedless inattention and it is out of hand immediately; the great thing is not to let it acquire bad habits that must afterward be broken. Any child can be taught to be beautifully behaved with no effort greater than quiet patience and perseverance, whereas to break bad habits once they are acquired is a Herculean task.”
Of course, yes, the times are changing. It would be regressive indeed to teach a little boy how to bow to visitors, a little girl to curtsy. But nevertheless, children need to learn patience; to learn the skills of polite conversation in company, how to listen attentively and be interested in those other than themselves. It goes without saying that a portable device can have no role to play in such an education.
Dear Ms Wood, I do hope that with this answer I have assisted you in a matter that is clearly one of considerable distress to you. Indeed, I am not ungrateful that you have exercised my own mind on this subject. I would, of course, be most interested in the opinions of my loyal readers on this matter.
Very sincerely yours,