Gotta Take This Call

Dear Helena,

The other night, I went to get Chinese food with a friend. I had my cell phone on the table. Just as our entrées arrived, my boyfriend rang. I answered because we’d had a fight and I thought he might be calling to apologize. I only spoke to him for a couple of minutes, but my friend was mad, saying: “You can talk to him later. Right now you’re supposed to be focusing on me.” Then she snatched my phone and refused to give it back until the check came. When you’re having dinner with someone, is it OK to answer your cell phone? And is it rude to leave your phone on the table? —Always Connected

Dear Always Connected,

You switch off your phone before a movie. Your friend deserves the same level of attention. Ideally, you should put your phone away altogether. That isn’t always possible, of course. There are some calls that it would be disastrous to miss. For instance, you’re someone’s sponsor in AA and he or she needs an immediate pep talk to prevent a relapse. Or your grandmother’s on her deathbed and you might miss her last words. If you think you might get such a call, explain to your friend and apologize in advance. Ask yourself, “Will something really bad happen if that call goes to voice mail?” If you can’t honestly answer “Yes,” then switch off your phone.

Many believe that although it’s rude to actually answer the phone, it’s fine to check and see who is calling. Michael Preston, a graduate student in cognitive psychology and technology who lives in Madison, New Jersey, says: “I slip the phone halfway out of my pocket and glance at it discreetly.”

But even a discreet glance may pique your companion. Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of media psychology at California State University–Los Angeles, says: “This is no different than if you’re at a party and you keep looking over the person’s shoulder to see if there is anyone more interesting to talk to.”

If you feel uneasy at the thought of putting your phone away, ask yourself why you need to have it out so badly. Are you on a power trip? “I’ve noticed that when someone puts their cell phone on the table, it’s when they’re above me in the hierarchy—for example, when I’m trying to sell them something,” says Andy Raskin, a San Francisco writer. Maybe on some level you want your friend to see how many calls you get. But instead of showing off about how important you are, try making your friend feel important. Stash your phone in your bag or, if you don’t have one, in your pocket (but not on vibrate mode, or you’ll be tempted to peek).

You can check your messages if your companion goes to the restroom. That way, you can be reached in case of an unexpected emergency. You’re not instantly accessible, but if it’s really bad—for example, if someone has died—it’s unlikely that delaying your response for 20 minutes is going to make that much difference anyway.

Raskin says that a friend of his, a management consultant in Japan who is known for his dynamic business meetings, always makes this request before they start: “Are you committed to the meeting? If so, everyone press the Commitment Button—turn off your phone.” When you have dinner with a friend, you should press the Commitment Button and put your phone out of sight. If you miss a call from your boyfriend, he’s not going to break up with you. It might even be good to let him stew a little.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.