Breathers, Zombies - Phones, Communication and Conversation at Dinner

Dining Un-Dead?

They ate in silence - but they said they were having a "lovely" time. According to this post in the Chicago Tribune, the dining dead are all around us. Whether it's the texting drones or the silent non-tech couples, it seems there is an epidemic of dead silent dining going on.

New communications tools have their limits.

My friend David posted this on Facebook and I began to reply only to find I'd discovered the limits of the posting length there. How's that for irony?

Dining Etiquette - Neither Tweety nor Silent Be

Cellphones, Blackberries and laptops are off limits at the dinner table. (Unless someone has a crisis call they need to be on alert for. Then, that's it.) It's not just about technology, it's also about communicating. The two are different, you know. (Even the author of the Trib piece seems to confuse the two.)

I often look at those couples - you know the deadly silent ones - and think God let's not ever end up that way! I don't think it's about being married as one person in the article said, or not knowing how to disconnect from technology, as everyone assumes. 

It's about a couple of simple things: knowing how and when to communicate, or not. And communication is not a one way data dump. Think of it like tossing a ball back and forth. Data dump is one person constantly throwing at or to the other, ball after ball after ball. That's not interaction. 

Communication can be fractured and compacted and immediate. And technology-assisted. But we forget that texting is not the same thing or the whole game - it is merely a form of communication to be used in certain proscribed circumstances. But not at dinner. Conversation is another form of communication. It should be interactive (unless you're off your meds and alone), it should be attentive, it can be entertaining, enlightening, thought-provoking, inspiring, touching, funny. It can be so many things if we let it. If we choose it. This is about intention.

Here's my advice for Breathers who want to breathe new life into dinner (or other) conversation.

1) Dine with (and by all means, marry) the right person.

This is half the battle. If you've run out of things to talk about it means you're not thinking, not growing, not curious. Or possibly you're exhausted, but that can't be an excuse for daily silent dinners. In a healthy couple you trade off "carrying the ball" when your partner has had one of those grueling days.

Think about what you can do for the other, not what you need from the other. Just asking yourself that question will change things.

Same goes for friends. You should surround yourself with fun, interesting people who enrich your life, bring new perspectives or ideas. 

2) Remember any dinner guest has the responsibility to bring something interesting to the table. I'm not talking about a new flavor of panna cotta for the potluck. I'm talking about interesting conversation and good company. We do that at dinner parties, why wouldn't we do the same for our own families?

Rose Kennedy used to post a news clipping on the cork board outside the dining room so the kids (the kids being JFK, RFK, Teddy...) knew the topic of the day. They were to be prepared with an opinion on it. Is it any wonder these guys grew up to be so influential? They were thinkers, trained to be so from an early age.

Try modifying that by bringing up a news item to discuss. Not gossip or bad news, but something interesting and out of the ordinary. Like, where exactly the Appalachian Trail is and how one might lose their way, only to end up in Argentina. See, you could even learn some geography. Or, why Bank of American kept extending Michael Jackson's credit when he was already so many millions in debt? 

3) Phone etiquette: ask permission if you must dial, text or tweet.

a) If you happen to remember someone you had to get back to earlier in the day, and it really can't wait - ask permission of your dining partner. Send the text or make a quick call to let the other person know you will return the call fully later, or the next day, or by email. Don't hold the call at the dinner table. Then shut the phone or crackberry off.

b) If you're out with an aquaintance or friend - don't Tweet or Facebook the encounter without permission and don't do it while you should be enjoying each other's company. If being out with me is a scoop, and I can understand that it might feel that way, then please at least let me know you are posting it on Twitter or Facebook or both so I can prepare for the barrage of disappointed emails from friends I didn't invite to join us. (I'm kidding, but you get my point.)

4) Play a getting-to-know-you game:

 a) Shake things up: ask your partner one of those fun couples' game questions - like "If you could cheat and be certain not to be caught, would you do it?" Or, "Guess how many years I'd remain married to a Zombie?" You will be certain to learn something new and interesting about your partner.

b) Share a new story with your partner just to see if they're paying attention: "Did I ever tell you about the time I Giselle Bundschen hit on me in a bar in the Village?"


Seriously folks....I actually think the ability to be in constant communication has some disadvantages. If we have texted or phoned each other all day long, the chances will be significantly slimmer that there is something new to talk about come dinner time! Try holding on to something to save for dinner.

Instant can be less gratifying than delayed...we've just forgotten. Perhaps because we were too busy Tweeting.