There you are at Flour + Water for the first time. After a 20-minute wait and free wine because of a seating mix-up, you’re seated at a table for two. It’s just you and your boyfriend of almost three years.
As you look down at the menu you notice them: your two phones, out of purse, out of pocket, lying on either side of the candle.
You order and start talking about work and grad school, but can’t keep from glancing down at them — not to see if you’ve gotten an email or a text, but because you’re so bothered by the fact that they’re even out.
We really should put them away, you think, but for some reason don’t make any effort to do so.
A glance around reveals not one other phone in sight. You’re also the only couple there under the age of 26, so maybe it’s one of those generational things that people always moan about — how we’re so disconnected from people in this era of hyper-technology that we’d rather stare at a screen than a face. Maybe they’re right, you think. Your parents would never do this.
Even worse, you start to think about what this scene here, on a date at a nice restaurant, says about you and your relationship. Are you the only two people in the entire restaurant so scared about not having anything to say to one another that the phones are some sort of safety blanket? No, that’s nonsense, you think.
Then what is it? There’s a proper etiquette for this sort of thing, right? Depending on how long you’ve been with the person and all of that?
It reminds of you a piece in the Bold Italic called “Tune In, Turn Off, Plug Out.” For first dates, the advice goes like this:
“Pay attention to your date! You are here to try to have sex, which you cannot do online yet. Your phone stays in your pocket. It may ring. It may buzz. You will want to prod it. Don’t.”
If you must check your phone, do it in the bathroom. Or ask politely at the end of the date if it’s OK to do so.
Decent advice, you think. But you’re way past that stage, and for people like you, in a long-term relationship, there’s another scenario:
“If you spend a lot of time with someone, I think it’s fair to say that checking more often is OK on extended dates.”
See?, you think. There’s nothing wrong with it.
The article continues: “Just because your companion glances at their phone too much doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to do it too, though. Keep the love alive.”
Keep the love alive. Hmm, isn’t that for older people? People who have been together or married for 10-plus years?
You ask your boyfriend why he does it. “Because my phone is too bulky to leave in my pant pocket when I’m sitting,” he says. Fair enough, you think.
“You, on the other hand, get more messages and always want to peek at them,” he tells you. “It interrupts the conversation sometimes because you say, ‘Let me just respond to let her know what time I’m going to be there.’”
“Not true…” you start to argue, but can’t find the words to continue. He’s totally right.
“Every time you get a message, I think, ‘Is she going to answer that?’” he tells you. “But I don’t mind, I’ve gotten used to it.”
Now you really feel like a jerk. So you call your best friend Laura to get her advice and see if you’re alone. She’s been with her guy for almost six years; they’re getting married in September.
He checks his phone constantly, she says, and she started doing the same so she wouldn’t be bored just sitting there. They can’t even watch movies together without him looking down at his phone. “I’m listening,” is always his reasoning.
How does she deal with that?
“I’ll yell at him,” she says. “But I don’t even think about it anymore.”
The issue might come down to entertainment — what is it that keeps our attention anymore? If the person sitting right in front of us isn’t enough, then what is? Or maybe we just feel like we’re missing out on everything else that’s happening in the world?
You’ve joked with your boyfriend that you think you’ve developed ADD as an adult, because you can’t seem to concentrate on things for long periods of time anymore. Since reading a New York Times piece called “Attached to Technology and Paying a Price” a while back, you’re afraid it’s not just a joke.
Bursts of information that come from new technology “play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats,” the article says. “The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.”
After that night, you both start making an effort to put your phones away. Sometimes yours will slip out, like the other night at Taqueria Cancun, but you remove it from the dinner table because you know that if you hear a notification for a new e-mail, a text or yes, even a Facebook friend request, you will
need want to check. And doing so is just rude — to anyone, but especially to someone you love a great deal.
The New York Times article concludes that “the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.”
Luckily it hasn’t gotten in the way of your relationship yet, and it sure won’t from here on out.