All Tech Considered
3:27 pm
Mon April 14, 2014

Restaurants: The Modern-Day Lab For Our Smartphone-Obsessed Ways

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 1:30 pm

When we asked you about the changing norms for smartphone use in public spaces, hundreds of stories poured in. (Thank you!) One notable subset of responses came from restaurant servers and bartenders, who reported incidents of standing over diners, literally waiting to serve expensive dishes because the customers were too enraptured by glowing devices to notice them.

So what are the right rules for smartphones at mealtime?

In the always-connected power center of Washington, D.C., servers at The Red Hen restaurant — just 2 miles north of the U.S. Capitol — say at least half their customers use smartphones while dining with other people.

"Two people [were] sitting at this table and I think they're on a date," says Dani Farr, a server at the Red Hen. "The gentleman, throughout the entire meal did not acknowledge me. He had no questions about the menu. She did all the ordering and never once looked up at me. And I'm like, I'm here for you, I want to talk to you, I want to engage. But you won't even look up at me. What are you doing? Why are you here?"

How we're changed by our devices is a question psychologist Thomas Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University, has been studying.

"The worry is that if we have more of a digital relationship with others, rather than a real relationship or a more face-to-face relationship with others, we may lose some of the nuance of those kinds of interactions," Plante says.

Digital scanning of information has already changed the way we read, so how does digital socializing affect the way we relate?

It's still early days in the research of our relationships with smartphones. The number of Americans using smartphones has jumped from 35 percent to 58 percent in just the past three years, a recent Pew survey shows.

"These changing times change so rapidly," Plante says. "It wasn't that long ago where none of us had smartphones, and somehow it's remarkable that something like smartphones have just revolutionized our culture."

They've taken over so quickly that rules for when and where we should use them aren't written. These days, is it acceptable to dine with a friend ... and text with another at the same time?

"A lot of people would experience that as being rude. While others would say no, this is just sort of the new norm," Plante says.

Another fairly new norm at restaurants is the Instagramming of food. When Farr, the server, sets down dishes in front of diners, the cameras come out to snap photos, first. "Can't you visually remember what it looks like? [Customers] are like, moving plates and silverware to get the lighting right," Farr says. She and the other servers say there's still value in just breaking bread with someone or simply sharing a plate of pasta in person.

"People should just sit down and enjoy the experience, and not have to be on the phone the whole time," says Courtney Cranch, who tends bar at The Red Hen.

Plante, the psychology professor, says the norms change without us even noticing. So as we embrace technology, we should remember our humanity, too.

"I think what we want to always keep in mind if we can, is how can we be kind to each other — gracious, respectful? And if we keep that in mind, the details will follow," Plante says.

If you want to take a break from your smartphone, your fellow NPR readers wrote in with some suggestions. And if you're out with friends and want to challenge the whole group to ignore their phones, there's the phone-stacking game, which we explain here.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

CORNISH: Many of us rarely leave home without our smartphones. And they've become such a big part of our lives, they often show up at dinner. But the technology is still new enough that the right etiquette at meal time isn't clear.

NPR's Elise Hu went to a restaurant to see how those addictive glowing screens are changing the dining experience.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There is potato gnocchi. And they're both like little dumplings?

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Washington, D.C.'s Red Hen Restaurant is known for its homemade pasta, wood-fired grill and the devoted service of people like Dani Farr.

DANI FARR: I love interacting with all the crazy people that are here in our restaurant.

HU: If you ask her, restaurant dining is about building relationships, whether it's between you and your fellow diners, or between the server and the people being served.

FARR: I'm trying to, like, almost build a magical moment with the person, you know, sitting at the table because I'm really excited to tell them about the menu and, like, the new things we have to offer.

HU: But the more time Farr spends in the service industry, the more persistent a presence the smartphone has become. She's full of stories about it.

FARR: Two people sitting at this table. I think they were on a date. The gentleman throughout the entire meal did not acknowledge me. Like, he had no questions about the menu. Like, she did all the ordering and, like, never once looked up at me. And I'm, like, I'm here for you. Like, I want to talk to you. I want to engage. But, like, you won't even look up at me.

(LAUGHTER)

FARR: Like, what are you doing? Why are you here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How we're changed by our devices is something Thomas Plante, a psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University, has been studying.

THOMAS PLANTE: The worry is that if we have more of a digital relationship with others more of a real relationship or more a face to face relationship with others, we may lose some of the nuance of those kinds of interactions.

HU: But it's still early days in the research of our relationships with phones. A recent Pew survey shows the number of Americans using smartphones has nearly doubled since just three years ago.

PLANTE: We're living in changing times and these changing times change so rapidly. It wasn't that long ago where none of us had smartphones, and somehow it's remarkable that something like smartphones have just revolutionized our culture.

HU: The devices have taken over so quickly that the rules for when and where we should use them aren't written. These days, is it acceptable to dine with a friend and text with another at the same time?

PLANTE: A lot of people would experience that as being rude. While others would say well, no, this is just sort of the new norm.

HU: Dani Farr, the server, notes another fairly new norm. When she sets down dishes in front of diners the cameras come out to snap photos, first.

FARR: Can't you visually, like, remember what it looks like? But they're like kind of, they're like moving plates and silverware to get the lighting right.

HU: She and the other servers say there's still value in just breaking bread with someone or sharing a plate of pasta in person.

Courtney Cranch tends bar at The Red Hen.

COURTNEY CRANCH: People should just sit down and, like, enjoy the experience and not have to be on the phone the whole time. You know?

HU: The psychology professor, Plante, says the norms change without us even noticing. So as we embrace technology, we should remember our humanity, too.

PLANTE: I think what we want to always keep in mind if we can, is how can we be kind to each other? Gracious, respectful. And if we keep that in mind the details will follow.

HU: Not every meal has to come with a smartphone on the side.

Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.