It's hard to think about dinner parties before the age of smartphones and social media without a bit of nostalgic wonder. Did we really all sit around tables looking at each other rather than our tiny screens? We just ate the food instead of Instagramming it first?
As we have become more accustomed to being constantly connected, the etiquette around cell phone use in social situations has relaxed, which means it's not unheard of to invite friends over for a nice dinner, only to have them spend the evening constantly checking their phones. What's a frustrated host to do? I spoke with a couple experts to get their advice on different ways to deal with those dinner party guests who seem more interested in screen time than face time.
First, I wondered if I was just being old-fashioned for thinking that a dinner party is a time for socializing with friends, not Facebook. Unless I am expecting an urgent call or email, I prefer to put my phone away and keep it away. (Although I am not immune! The top photo is actually Ariel and me Instagramming photos from a Kitchn retreat dinner party, a brief phone interlude in an otherwise face-to-face socializing evening, I swear.)
But I know many people who have no issue with friends using their phones constantly at social gatherings. When I feel stung by someone who answers a text instead of the question I just asked her, am I being overly sensitive?
No, says Molly Watson, the etiquette expert behind the advice blog Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. She agrees that cell phone use at a dinner party sends an off-putting message to everyone present.
"It's rude. Whether or not it's what the person intends, it clearly communicates that the person using it has better, more interesting things to attend to."
And Brendan Francis Newnam, co-host of the radio show The Dinner Party Download, agrees.
"It’s no more realistic to think that people won’t look at their cell phones than to think they won’t judge your apartment. That said, cell phones are corrosive to the fellowship that makes dinner parties special. In short — they are simply not okay."
So how can a frustrated host deal with the situation? Here are a few ideas.
Strategy 1: Do nothing, but don't invite them back.
You could take the path of least resistance and just ignore the problem for the evening, but mentally add that person to your Do Not Invite list for the future. This is Watson's preferred course of action. When someone pulls out a cell phone at a dinner party, she points out:
"It's rude behavior, but commenting on rude behavior is, itself, rude behavior."
Biting your tongue isn't easy, but you won't risk ruining your party with an awkward scene.
Strategy 2: Allow a periodic communal checking of phones.
Letting everyone give in briefly to their addiction will make it easier to continue the evening phone-free. It's the 2014 version of a smoke break, and the method Newnam recommends:
"Confront it head on — between courses say something like 'Let’s all check our phones now so we can get back to hanging out.' I do this at restaurants when someone leaves to go to the bathroom. I wish there was a German or French word for a brief interlude to check your phone that would make it seem more classy."
French or German speakers, any ideas?
Strategy 3: Fight back, but with a sense of humor.
If you are not up for confronting a guest in front of the rest of the party, you can take the sneakier, more passive-aggressive (and funnier!) route that Newnam suggests:
"Fight fire with fire. Text them a little message. Something like You lose or Your husband is hitting on me or a picture from your phone...of them staring at their phone."
A friend with a good sense of humor will get it and put his phone away. Someone who is easily offended might get huffy — but why would want to spend the evening with a rude, easily offended person anyway?
Strategy 4: Ask them why.
Perhaps your guest has a good reason for being glued to her phone, like an urgent phone call she is expecting, or a last-minute work email she has to deal with. If that's the case, asking guests why they keep looking at their phones instead of engaging with the party will either set your mind at ease somewhat or call attention to their rude behavior. Watson has a tactful approach:
"I might ask them if they had somewhere else to be or what the emergency is, since that's the only reason they'd be dragging their phone out instead of enjoying the food and conversation."
And Newnam is a little more no-nonsense:
"Walk up to the offending phone fiddler and say, 'Hey, I'm really glad you came. Do you need to be somewhere else? If not, I'd appreciate it if you put your phone down and joined us for a couple of hours.'"
Either way, your guests will be more conscious of their phone-fiddling for the rest of the evening.
Strategy 5: Take the phones away.
Maybe politely pointing out rampant phone use doesn't solve the problem, or several of the guests are stuck to their phones. In these cases, treating everyone like misbehaving kindergarteners is the best course of action — you take away all phones. Newnam recommends this as a last-ditch option.
"If none of the above works, collect everyone's phone in a shoebox when they enter the party. Assure your guests that 'phones in a box' is not an update version of 'car keys in the bowl' swinger parties from the seventies. On second thought, don't assure them."
I have a friend who will sometimes call for a "phone pile" and everyone has to stack their phones in the middle of the table. We always get why — he only does this when most of the party is engaging with devices instead of their friends — and I've never seen anyone get offended or upset. It's often a relief to have the phones out of our hands, temptation out of reach, and our focus on the people and food around us. Just like in the long-ago days before smartphones.