Phone Etiquette at the Table: The Rules Have Changed

Dear Helena,
My brother has accused me of always being "glued to my phone." He claims that I had the phone on the table at Thanksgiving dinner last year, which I do not remember. I do admit that when we've been at a restaurant, I may have glanced at my email while he was reading the menu, and I do prefer to Google stuff rather than waste time debating whether so-and-so was or was not in a movie. Am I being rude or is he just a Luddite?
—Invite Me, Invite My Phone

Dear Invite Me, Invite My Phone,
Four years ago, I said you shouldn't have your phone out at the table except for emergencies. Things have changed. Nowadays there are endless ways you might use your phone to enhance your dining experience. It is socially acceptable to Google vadouvan or look at photos of the restaurant's banh mi on Foodspotting prior to ordering. Furthermore, you might want to consult a wine-pairing or sustainable-seafood app. In some restaurants, you can even use your phone to pay for your meal (as at branches of The Melt). And of course, you can photograph your dinner, which has become less of a faux pas and more of a fact of many people's lives.

But even in today's tech-friendly climate, you should try to be as quick about it as possible. Foodspotting cofounder and CEO Alexa Andrzejewski says you might consider snapping your photo at dinner but posting it later.

I also think it's more OK to use your phone at the table these days if it's directly related to the conversation. It's fine to pull up a picture or video of something you're talking about, whether it's your dog in his Halloween costume or your yard's "before" and "after" shots. Within limitations explained in this column, you can also use your phone to clear up a point of contention or identify a song that is playing.

Whatever you are doing, the important thing is to explain it to your companion: "I'm going to Google the etymology of the word martini" or "You have to see so-and-so's latest Facebook update—she's clearly lost it." If you don't explain yourself, the other person has to sit there for a few minutes wondering if you just felt bored. When I was growing up, if a member of the family was less than entertaining at dinner, my brother or sister would say, "Bing! Bing! The 'Boring Bell' just went off." Turning to your phone is the grown-up equivalent.

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