Emily Post

Texting During Dinner: Multitasking, FOMO, and Smartphone Etiquette

Emily PostSocial etiquette is becoming murkier everyday. Half of all adult Americans now own either a smartphone or tablet, and one-third use their mobile devices to view news stories and video clips at least weekly. –Half of U.S. adults own a smartphone or tablet, 2012 Pew survey Everybody’s on the phone. But they’re not just talking on the phone.

Instead of reiterating the obvious, I will dive into the implications for IRL interactions.

Cultural mores dictate certain things you shouldn’t do because they’re rude. And usually there are exceptions to these rules. Common sense used to suffice in this realm. Mobile technology has introduced a host of new implicit rules and exceptions, not to mention the generational divide over what’s considered rude. The key is whether the other person knows you have an exception (assuming they care or loosely adhere to the following). Common scenarios:

Bad Tech Behavior Exception Caveat/Details
Texting during a meal/date/outing Texting a friend who is on the way/lost/running late. Instagram can be fine if the other person gets it or joins in Instagramming the fire hydrant or heart-shaped coffee froth. Mention to present company that the other party is the person you’re texting. Generally, just give your undivided attention to the other person.
Using your phone while watching/listening to a presentation or speech Taking notes; taking a non-flash photo of the speaker/event; tweeting about the presentation Even if you’re just notetaking on your phone (and do use Evernote), it would look better to use a tablet, seemingly more public and when so, associated with single tasks like notetaking, whereas a phone screen is smaller, thus less conducive to notetaking and more private. Phone is better at hiding your potential bad tech behaviors. Ongoing tweeting is acceptable if the presentation is meant to be live tweeted- definitely if the event has a hashtag. But try and look up.
Texting, web search, or checking Facebook while on a date Showing something on Facebook that is relevant to the conversation. Googling/texting a mutual burning question to an authority. If you want to get away with any of these behaviors undetected, do not post anything. The person may now be or may end up your Facebook friend. A simple calendar check would let them put two and two together: you were multitasking them, as in digitally double-booking them.
Forgetting to turn your phone on silent or vibrate in the movies or at a meeting Movie theatre: no exception. Meeting: Vibrate is acceptable if expecting an important call or email but only if the phone is in your lap, pocket, or purse — not on the table. In a meeting where others are aware (and better yet, mutually affected by the outcome) of your expected call or email or text, vibrate mode on the table is fine.




 You know who you are.

I don’t want to be always on. I want to be in the moment even when the moment is paused for a bathroom break. It’s part of the bigger picture: we need to silence our FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Multitasking is addictive because it produces dopamine. We instinctually want to multitask because the big DA is a powerful reward-based neurotransmitter. It’s what makes cocaine and methamphetamines such fun. We bathe in dopamine for that neurological reward and in order to supposedly maximize our experience of all the available technology. But digital stress on the brain from multitasking makes us perform worse. We really can’t handle more than two tasks at once. We really should focus on the main task at hand: each other.

  • Emily,

    I had to think about this for a while before I responded.

    As you said, “Mobile technology has introduced a host of new implicit rules and exceptions, not to mention the generational divide over what’s considered rude. The key is whether the other person knows you have an exception (assuming they care or loosely adhere to the following).”

    Generational differences can be huge.

    However, I think that the real key is setting the rules up front. In most of these scenarios, problems arise when one person has different expectations than the other people involved. For example, the speakers at many of the marketing events that I have attended expect people to be on their mobile phones during the talk. However, I noticed one person who I follow on Twitter pointed out that she was called out for tweeting during an AiMA event.

    I think that the same is true for other social situations. Therefore, it might be a good thing to discuss what the ground rules are up front. I could see a time in the future where social media will become acceptable even on dates. However, that will depend on the participants involved.

    Mobile phones have already found their way into theatrical events. However, of all the situations, I think using a mobile phone in a movie theater is the most rude.

    I haven’t heard many people talking about this topic recently. However, maybe more people should be.

    Great post.

    • Chad, expectations are definitely the key. I’m surprised that person got called out for tweeting at an AiMA event. I’ve never been to one where tweeting wasn’t rampant.

      In the future, it will be even harder to turn off technology because it will be inside our bodies. So you’re probably right about that dinner date in 2030. But by then, it won’t be “social media.” It will just BE. Which I wish it already was. I touched on my predictions for total permeation of hardlinking in the physical world in this post about Web 3.0: https://www.emilybinder.com/technology/web-big-bang-and-crunch-part-2/ Google Goggles-esque in contact lenses or corneal implants…

      The movie theater text message alert or ringing phone is very rude, but at least the offense is diffused across a few dozen people. At the dinner table, the rudeness is directly channeled. Enough with all my situations and exceptions and caveats above — a rule of thumb is simply: make sure the person/people you are with know that you think they deserve your undivided attention and they are the most important thing at that moment (barring emergencies, etc.).