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What To Do With Your Smartphone While You're Having Dinner

Where do you draw the line on smartphone use?
Nicolas Asfouri
AFP/Getty Images
Where do you draw the line on smartphone use?

There was a time when checking your smartphone at the dinner table was considered offensive. But social norms and behaviors change as we adapt to technologies. Heck, that's the whole central theme of this blog.

Not long ago, I found myself at dinner with young political reporters from a Washington-publication-I-won't-name and felt oddly isolated despite being at a table with a dozen people. Why? I was the only one without a phone in hand, compulsively checking it for most of the meal.

There is apparently a name for device usage while in places others might consider it rude: electronic displays of insensitivity, or EDI. And when author Joseph Grenny surveyed more than 2,000 of his newsletter recipients for a study, "Digital Divisiveness," they said these kinds of displays are getting worse. VentureBeat sums it up:

"The report is not about whether electronic devices are reducing our social communications. There are indications that, in fact, sociability is being redefined and expanded by digital devices. Instead, it is focusing on situations where a mobile device is literally drawing attention away from the non-electronic, in-person experience. ...

"Ninety percent of Grenny's respondents reported that their friends or family have stopped paying attention to them at least once a week because of a digital device. Twenty-five percent said EDIs have caused 'a serious rift' with a friend or relative. More than half have witnessed an EDI when they were talking in person to a customer service representative."

The report is based on an unscientific survey, we realize. But it raises questions I want to put to you: Does it create divisiveness in your relationships when your companion is more entranced by his or her phone, or would you prefer that we all accepted smartphone checking as a reality? Why? What kind of social norms are acceptable when it comes to smartphone use in gathering places? Are they OK at parties but not in the movie theater? Is this completely situational, i.e., might as well have dinner with your phone if everyone at the table is?

Many social practices around how we use technology aren't necessarily agreed upon before they become norms. For example, there wasn't a moment we collectively decided that we are "always on" or available to respond quickly to text messages. Yet, we expect it from people we text. So, what are the boundaries — if any — that we should expect for smartphone engagement during face-to-face human interactions?

The more I cover technology and society, the more conscious I've become about how much control my devices have over me. It's real work to just be present in the moment, as David Foster Wallace so beautifully described in his famous "This Is Water" commencement speech. So this transition point we're in, in which smartphones or other devices are really becoming our primary companions for most of our waking hours, is a fascinating one. Let's explore it over a series of posts.

Leave your thoughts in the comments, send me a note on Facebookor Twitteror fill out this Google form, and I'll include your thoughts as we explore these norms going forward.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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