Stop Broadcasting Your Social Life

Dear Helena,

A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s house for dinner. While the host cooked, the guests chatted—all but one. He was busy Twittering on his iPhone. I was miffed. It probably took a dozen emails for all the guests to agree on a date for the dinner. With all the work it had taken to schedule our get-together, I felt that we should savor it. Is it OK to Twitter when you’re at a dinner party, or a bar or restaurant? —Be Here Now

Dear Be Here Now,

First, let me explain for the uninitiated: Twitter is a service that lets you send short messages (“tweets”) via cell phone, instant message, or the Twitter website. You can make your tweet public by publishing it on the company website, or make it available only to your network of friends. Unlike a text, it can hit your whole group of contacts at once. Typically, tweets are banal antidotes to loneliness concerning hangovers, commutes, or the weather. Since Twitter launched in March 2006, its popularity has been growing among tech-savvy types.

Although most people would generally agree that making a call on your cell phone during dinner is wrong, and that sending a text message is less impolite because it’s silent but is also wrong, Twitter is new enough that the etiquette surrounding it hasn’t been established.

Galen Krumel, a software developer in Palo Alto, California, thinks Twittering in company is verboten. “It’s analogous to sending texts or writing emails or making phone calls. … Usually I wait until I’m on my own.”

But unlike calling or texting, Twittering is not a two-way conversation. Rather than being a distraction from the present, a tweet shows a hyperawareness of the moment, some people contend. Nicole Solis, a bluegrass mandolin player in San Francisco, says: “Twitter makes you think about what you’re doing and what’s interesting about it.” Solis says she may Twitter if she’s somewhere particularly glamorous. For instance, she has Twittered: “I’m eating at a restaurant that’s not even open yet.”

So Twittering in company could be a compliment, a sign that you think where you are or whom you’re with is cool. Some of my friends carry little notebooks with them to jot ideas in. I’m always gratified when they write down something I’ve said. It could be similarly validating when someone thinks you’ve said something pithy enough to Twitter (something “twithy,” as it were).

But in practice, if a friend is being truly entertaining, you won’t want to interrupt the conversational flow so you can publish his aperçus. Besides, if people know that you Twitter when someone says something particularly amusing, they may be insulted if you don’t. After a friend explained why she had Twittered while we were hanging out together in a bar, I spent the rest of the evening straining to say something twithy. When she didn’t get out her phone again, I felt piqued.

I decided to see for myself whether Twittering could flatter. I had two friends over for dinner. We had a great time, but no one uttered any Twitter-worthy bons mots. I thought they might take it as a compliment if I just Twittered about what we were up to. But they raised their eyebrows when I got out my phone. I wrote: “Just had dinner with two dear friends. Empty plates, full minds.” They weren’t impressed.

I planned to continue my Twitter research over the weekend, but on Saturday night I went to a bar and drank too many apple martinis. On Sunday I cooked dinner at a friend’s house, then got so wrapped up in playing with his four-year-old, I again forgot to Twitter. Maybe Twittering isn’t the sincerest form of flattery after all. If you’re really interested in whom you’re with and what you’re doing, you’re not thinking about broadcasting it to your network.

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