What We Do When the Phone Rings During Dinner: Then & Now

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Anne Wolfe Postic)

In the eighties, our phone rang a lot during dinner, something my mother didn’t love, though she saw the necessity in my dad’s line of work. He was a real estate agent, and a lot of people needed him outside of their own work hours. (After all, you usually have to have a job to buy a house, so ditching work to look for one isn’t the best plan.) But we still had rules about talking on the phone during dinner, and they even applied to Dad.

With changing lifestyles and meal times, as well as seriously ramped up technology, the rules have changed, but perhaps not as much as we think. My parents’ standards for phone communication at the table are the same ones we use today, even if we don’t have a fancy box to hide our phones like the one in the above photo.

(Image credit: Anne Wolfe Postic)

Back in the day, we didn’t have cell phones or even an answering machine. Most people couldn’t take the day away from their own work to look at houses, sign contracts or ask questions of their realtor. My dad spent a lot of time with us and never missed a recital or game, but he also worked well into the night, inviting people over to sign papers in the den, or heading to their houses, and doing paperwork at the kitchen table long after we were all in bed. He also tried — and mostly succeeded — to stay off the phone during dinner.

With no way to find out who might have called, ignoring the phone completely wasn’t an option. When it rang while we were at the table, my mother would have one of the kids answer and we were instructed to respond, “I’m sorry. He’s having dinner right now. May I please have him call you back in a few minutes?” And people were usually fine with it. Bonus: We learned phone manners and how to take legible messages. Are phone manners even a thing now?

There were exceptions, of course. When a big deal was in the works, Dad might answer the phone himself and slip into the next room to talk. This was fine by Mom, because a single sale could mean a new station wagon or a trip for the family. To this day, there is a property in town I refer to as “The Buick LeSabre.” That 1981 station wagon is long gone, and the property has since been sold again, but the car appeared in the driveway just after that deal was closed, so that farm will always be a Buick to me.

(Image credit: Anne Wolfe Postic)

My husband is a lawyer. Much like home buyers, his clients don’t always run afoul of the law during business hours. Most things can wait thirty minutes, but a call from jail might be a once a day opportunity. I’m a freelancer, and job offers and emails can come at any time of the day or night. For both of us, ignoring the phone could mean a loss of income. Though the kids can’t answer calls for us — cell phones have changed that — we can put our phones on silent in another room for the duration of a meal. No matter how tempted I am to answer a question about a cool fundraiser I’m working on, it can wait. (The photo above is a dramatization. I don’t really keep a phone by my plate. No children were harmed, nor meals ruined, in the taking of that photo.)

In the eighties in our suburban town, it was understood that families with young children ate at 6pm. (No, really.) These days, some families eat at five or seven or 6:42, while others don’t sit down together until 9pm, or later. Households come in all shapes and sizes, too. My single friends or those without kids can eat whenever they darn well please (lucky). Even if I wanted to mind my manners and not bug people during a meal, there would be no way to know when to call or text. Thanks to texting and email, there is also a later window for communication. Calling someone’s home phone after 9:30 could be very intrusive, but people who don’t want to be interrupted by a late email or text can set their phones to silent and respond the next morning. Now that anything goes, we are responsible for shutting down our own technology when needed.

The idea of leaving work behind at 5pm is lovely, but for most of us, it will never be a reality. Does that mean we can’t put away our phones for thirty minutes? Not at all. We can, and we should. Most of the time, we do, and there are only a few exceptions. Part of what we try to teach our children is when, why and where to make those exceptions.

You know what really bugs me? When people think they’re being sneaky by using their phones under the table, in their laps. Guess what. You aren’t getting away with anything, and you look pretty creepy staring so intently at your crotch during dinner. One could argue that openly answering a text at the table is ever so slightly less rude than that. In fact, this debate made for at least one rousing dinner discussion at our place recently.

What are your rules about technology at the table? Is it ever allowed or do you ban it completely?