This Thanksgiving, betwixt turkey, football and circuitous political squabbles with your least-favorite aunt, you may be tempted to glance under the food-laden table and sneak a glimpse at your cellphone.
A timely PSA: Don’t do it.
For once, resist the urge. Not only because it will save you the ennui of a hundred thousand Instagrammed turkeys, but because your family will like you better for it, too. According to a new survey commissioned by Eventbrite, 66 percent of all Americans think phones have no place at the holiday table. And among the grand-parently set, that adversity only climbs higher: 85 percent of older women consider Thanksgiving cellphone use a scourge.
All this comes as no surprise to Lizzie Post, a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute and the co-host of American Public Media’s “Awesome Etiquette,” who says that the bottom line on technology etiquette hasn’t changed … even as the technology has.
“The overarching rule is always that you want to be able to focus on the people you’re with,” Post said. “If your phone is distracting you in any way, that’s a problem.”
The etiquette quandaries around phone use aren’t new, of course; the Post Institute first took up the question in 2009. But since then, phones — particularly phones with the ability to tweet, Tinder and otherwise serve up a buffet of digital distractions — have become particularly “ubiquitous,” as Post puts it.
This Thanksgiving, nearly 60 percent of American adults will own smartphones, versus just 48 percent in 2012; a much higher number, over 90 percent, own regular cellphones. And since one-third of smartphone owners use their phones during meals, you can probably expect to see a little e-mail-checking or Internet-browsing at a Thanksgiving table near you.
Such distracted dining isn’t just rude, either. Research suggests that your conversations and relationships also take a hit from it — an issue worth pondering at this cozy, friends-and-family time of year.
Last March, a survey suggested that nearly 9 in 10 people feel that their loved ones neglect them in favor of technology on a weekly basis. A smaller-scale observational study suggested that, when parents and children dine together, parents frequently pay more attention to their phones than their kids. But a May study by Shalini Misra, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, paints an even more troubling picture.
In a nutshell, Misra and a team of trained research assistants observed conversations between strangers in D.C.-area coffee shops. They found, astoundingly, that if one of the people casually held her phone — or even placed it on the table between them — both participants rated the conversation as less meaningful, and both considered the other person less empathetic and less understanding. In other words, the mere presence of a phone impeded interpersonal connection, even if nobody was using it.
“Technology is not just a tool, it’s a symbol,” Misra explains. “Just by its presence, we occupy multiple places. We’re in a poly-conscious state of mind … and that is so distracting.”
To be clear, Misra and other critics of our smartphone-obsessed society don’t blame the smartphones, as such: “I have nothing against technology at all,” the photographer Babycakes Romero said of his year-long series, “The Death of Conversation,” which documented people glued to their phones in public places. Instead, critics and researchers see the phone as a tool that channels our need for distraction, our tendency to escape a physical “here and now” that is somehow uninteresting or oppressive.
On Thanksgiving, a day that many of us spend with in-laws, kooky aunts or other semi-estranged relations, that escape may prove particularly tempting. But Misra recommends pushing back: The discomfort is worth confronting, she says. In fact, in places like Germany and France, its common practice to switch off phones during a family meal.
“That’s not a part of our culture, but maybe it should be,” Misra said. “If we value empathy and connectedness, we should reflect on what technology means to us.”
So, go on: Power down. Reflect! You may just find something else to be thankful for this year. Your grandmother certainly will.