Eatiquette

I must apologise once again for the scarcity of 2012 blog entries. If I’m not here, or popping up in a rectangle on the Guardian Culture website telling you what I think of a telly programme, or reading out some light-hearted news items on Radio 2’s weekend breakfast show between 7-7.30am, or timewasting on Twitter, you can be pretty sure I’m sitting in a library or coffee shop typing.

The second series of Mr Blue Sky for Radio 4 moves on apace, as they say, and it has little choice, as the deadline for delivery of six brand new half-hour episodes is the end of February. Since you ask, I’m almost through the first draft of Episode 4, but that doesn’t mean it’s finished, as we stacked up many drafts of the four episodes in series one before they were camera-ready, or whatever the radio equivalent is. We’re also having to re-cast one or two of the main parts due to that ol’ devil called availability. (I can confirm that Mark Benton will return to play Mr Blue Sky himself, but other principals are in flux.)

Anyway, I’m relying on Twitter as a form of what we shall quaintly call “staying in touch.” This morning, in need of a break from scriptwriting, I repaired to a Costa with my laptop (I still count it as a “screen break” if it involves a little walk), and threw out a hypothetical.

The response was mixed and interesting, so I thought I might throw it out again here, in a more formal fashion, and without the 140-character discipline. It is yet another question of etiquette and manners, which must be constantly updated and adjusted, so as to properly reflect the world around us, which changes constantly. When I was a teenager, I wore what we shall again quaintly call a “fisherman’s cap” inside the parents’ house of a girl I wished to woo, and it was only afterwards that I was informed of my social faux pas. Her Victorian parents were not impressed by my failure to remove the cap whilst under their roof, and I was oblivious.

It didn’t matter in the long run, as the girl was not in the least bit interested in going out with me, but I remember feeling a bit guilty for doing the wrong thing. As it happens, my hat was pretty securely fixed to my head by way of backcombed and lacquered hair at front and back, but the 19th century parents were not to know that.

Anyway, mobile phones did not exist in the early 80s. Nor did portable computers. And nor did something called “tablet computers.” Etiquette was more about hats and shoes, and taking them off when you went into houses. But things change, and these days, among many other things that annoy me as the author of the 2008 Manners Manifesto, it is increasingly the use, or misuse, or abuse, of phones that gets my goat. But this was new …

I was dining, with a co-diner, in a restaurant [not pictured] the other night. It was a local restaurant, and not “posh”, but it was the evening, and it was a cut above nipping into Pizza Express with a voucher, put it that way. The lighting was low, and candles flickered sensually from each table. This was not a Costa in the afternoon. It was pretty full. Along one wall, tables for two were arranged side by side. This is where we were seated. A solo diner was seated beside us. This diner might have been waiting for somebody to join them, but they were solo on arrival. We, meanwhile, had ordered, and were waiting for the starter.

The solo diner took an iPad out of their bag. They turned it on and started fiddling with it, reading and scrolling and clicking in the usual touchpad manner. The combination of the tilt of the iPad, the diner’s failure to adjust the brightness of the screen (which many on Twitter were quick to point out as a sensible option), the close proximity of the tables, and the low, some-might-say romantic lighting meant that the peripheral distraction caused by the lit-up 9.7-inch screen was more than noticeable, it was a problem.

I ask again: is this socially acceptable behaviour in the candlelit environment of a restaurant in the evening? The diner did not put the iPad away. They were not checking emails, they were using the iPad as a companion. Because the diner was alone, I felt some empathy. I have, in my professional life, dined alone on many occasions, and some of them in quite formal restaurants. As a music journalist, I was often sent off to other countries on my own (not always with a photographer or press chaperone), and as such grew accustomed to going into eating and drinking establishments on my own. I usually took a book, or a newspaper. Electronic versions thereof were not invented.

Had the adjacent diner pulled out a book, or paper, or indeed a Kindle, which emits hardly any vestigial light, I would have given them not another single thought. Indeed, I would have admired their independence. I actually think it’s a heartwarming sight to see someone so self-assured and confident that they are willing to walk into a restaurant, order and eat a meal. Why should they care about what anybody thinks? Go for it.

But the iPad is a new addition to the social armoury. And I personally feel that there is a time and a place for whipping out a glowing tablet, and a restaurant at night, with people sitting either side, is not it.

But I’m always interested in what others have to say on the matter. As I say, I have sympathy with the solo diner, and respect for them, but occupying one’s own space is paramount in mixed social situations. Flashing light around in the dark is just as much of an intrusion as talking loudly, or taking a call on a phone (which, if I owned a restaurant, I would ban outright). The glimpse of an illuminated screen in a cinema out of the corner of your eye is a major irritant. I have asked people with phones on to turn them off in cinemas, if I’ve felt that a knife would not come out. Just ask politely if the patron wouldn’t mind turning off their screen, as it’s distracting you from the film.

In a restaurant, it’s not so clear cut.

You may remember me writing about my dismay in 2008 that a family eating out – this time in a brightly-lit, unromantic Pizza Express – allowed their tiny child to sit with headphones on and watch a cartoon on a portable DVD player. My blog entry wound up a lot of parents, who didn’t see why their enjoyment of a pizza should be spoiled or their evening’s plans inconvenienced just because they’d given birth to a baby. It can be a sensitive issue. I don’t have kids. But I don’t want to be a fascist about it. (By the way, I said nothing on the occasion of the headphoned baby. Didn’t even sneer from a distance, or tut.)

You can re-live the Pizza baby debate here. But your thoughts on this latest conundrum would be welcomed.

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12 thoughts on “Eatiquette

  1. Andrew, you are way too polite!! I can’t abide the way some people will even text each other when they are sat at the same table. I thought that was what speech was invented for?!

  2. I think it’s probably a case of people needing being a little bit more self aware with their devices generally. You can’t go onto any form of public transport without hearing somebody’s music leaking out of their headphones. Most probably don’t even realise. Not suggesting I’m perfect in any way, but I know roughly how loud I can have my headphones without leakage occurring.

    In your specific case I would say that the guy should have realised that a bright screen in a dimly lit restaurant was going to disturb other people. That’s not to say that it should always be bad manners, more that the bad manners occur when you are not being as self aware as you should be. In a brightly lit restaurant it might not have mattered, or as you suggested, if he’d just turned the screen brightness down.

    As for giving a young child a portable DVD player in a restaurant, I guess if it prevents them from screaming then it’s ok. Personally I think if you’re worried about the child spoiling your pizza, you should perhaps stay at home, or get a babysitter. Plenty would disagree, and if I had kids maybe I’d feel differently but it really annoys me when I encounter parents who have taken small children into an adult environment without a thought for other peoples enjoyment being ruined if the small child is running around or screaming. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but that’s how I feel. It sometimes seems like parents think they have a licence to be obnoxious. Of course it could be a loud minority that I notice over a quiet majority.

  3. I was sat on a plane once, listening to music. I was not aware how loud it was, but it was clearly too loud for some. A lady say next to me, in her late 50’s, went out of her way to ensure I made eye contact with her, and gestured me to take out my ear buds/headphones/whatever they are called. She asked me to turn down my music as it was annoying her. She could have asked a lot more politely. Her manner made me angry, usually I would have apologised and turned the music down some, instead I pretended to and continued to look out of the window.

    5 minutes later, the woman and her husband took out cheese and onion sandwiches from their bags and proceeded to eat them… on a plane !!!

    You couldn’t make it up !

    Etiquette died with the monocle.

  4. It probably didn’t occur to him that it might even possibly be bothering you. I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to be honest, although I wouldn’t have been in a restaurant, and I don’t have any devices suitable for whipping out in a restaurant. (So it wasn’t me then.) I always avoid confrontation. If I don’t get my reward in heaven then… so be it.

    I do hate it when someone nearby is watching a film or TV show on one of these things on the train. That’s just really annoying because you feel left out unless/until you’ve worked out what it is they’re watching. I once saw a young woman set up her iPad on a stand on the table on the train, then set up a laptop next to it. She was watching a film on the iPad whilst using Facebook on the laptop. I love the idea of going to that much trouble so that wherever you are you can be not really watching a film. She was only on for about half an hour too.

    (I honestly assumed fisherman’s cap was a euphemism on first reading, by the way.)

  5. Leaving the iPad ettiquette question aside for a moment, I want to ask about this:

    “I actually think it’s a heartwarming sight to see someone so self-assured and confident that they are willing to walk into a restaurant, order and eat a meal. Why should they care about what anybody thinks? Go for it.”

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic here, given your earlier mention of having to dine alone yourself. But you do make it sound like those of us who eat alone, for whatever reason, are some strange abberation.

    I have to eat alone regularly, as my job requires me to spend some evenings away from home and family. I suspect that if I had an iPad I’d probably use it while dining. I definitely use my phone to listen to podcasts and read Twitter, or an occasional book.

    And as for distracting other diners, there’s plenty that can do that, depending on your temperament. The table with a girls’ night out, where they’re taking lots of flash photographs, the braying suit-clad wide-boys, repeating their tired old catchphrases ad nauseam while getting drunker and drunker. The periodic, badly sung refrain of ‘Happy Birthday’ from the waiters accompanied by a crappy cake and an indoor firework. But they’re all being ‘social’ so it’s OK. It’s weird old Loner McTableforone who’s the problem.

    Or there’s the strange habit of waiting staff repeatedly approaching you to ask ‘if everything’s ok’ despite you clearly a) having a mouthful of food, b) listening to something on earphones, c) reading something and d) definitely not looking around trying to make eye contact. This week a waiter did this to me three times. Each time he had to bend down to put himself in my eyeline, and I had to remove an earphone to hear what he was saying, but he still did it three times. He was new, so he probably still had his checklist which says ‘check on customers after 2, ten and twenty minutes’ I suppose.

    So in answer to your question, no I don’t think use of an iPad at a restaurant should be verboten. And deep down, you know you’re only complaining about it because it’s new and scientific.

    • Well, I’m happy to refute both claims made in this comment, Jim. One, I was not being sarcastic. I thought I’d made it clear that I have dined alone often, and I do have respect for a solo diner’s independence. You’re not an “aberration”, unless I am. I’d say neither of us is. So that that one cleared up.

      Second, I’m not complaining about the iPad “because it’s new and scientific.” That’s a very odd accusation against someone who writes on a laptop, and uses one all the time in public places, albeit coffee shops during the day and not restaurants at night. But there’s a big difference between using an iPhone and using an iPad, or a MacBook, wouldn’t you say?

      You’ve taken my social conundrum personally, which is a shame, as it was a question as much as a complaint. (Nor, at any point, did I say that it was OK for groups of people to make noise – no matter how many of you there are, you must respect the space and privacy of others in a restaurant. I would personally never take a call in a restaurant, but then again, I’m likely to have my phone off in that situation.) Thanks for joining the discussion, but don’t tell me what I feel “deep down”, as you have no way of knowing that.

  6. In some places it would seem inappropriate, in others less so. I’ve always thought of Pizza Express as child-friendly and so don’t mind children running around and screaming. If the same was happening somewhere more “up-market”, for want of a better phrase, it might bother me more. It’s difficult to have an opinion on use of devices without knowing exactly the level of disturbance it caused. Would someone wearing very bright clothes or a top with loads of light reflecting sequins cause similar ocular disturbance? A silly example I know, but wouldn’t it be essentially the same? And would you ban certain items of clothing because they caught your eye?

  7. I watched one of my favouriite episodes of Frasier last night where he had to dine alone and suffer the social stigma, it’s very funny.

    I think your ipad incident merely highlights our increasing addiction to technology and how it is de-sensitising us to other people’s reactions. As gadgets become increasingly distracting and are succeeding in dragging us away from the real world, it seems that this is unconsciously training us to become more and more compulsive, having the effect of blunting our social awareness.

    Obviously, it should be up to the restaurants to agree a policy on such behaviour the way they must have done when mobiles first came along – and I imagine they will eventually. Until then, I personally would have expected your waiter or a senior member of staff to notice the distraction and politely ask the person to refrain. I also wouldn’t have left a tip and I’m usually ridiculously generous. If you feel really strongly about it, I would advise sending a note or email to the restaurant in question.

    Other than that, not sure what we can do about it though except get used to it. Maybe the Luddites were right after all.

    On an unrelated note – is that you Dave?( from WWM) If so, how are you old boy? ( sorry andrew – carry on)

  8. With you all the way, Andrew. A bright screen in a dark place is definitely enough to really wind me up, and I’m quite a laid back person. I think Jim is being very unfair. First of all he assumes that you have no problem with all those other examples of disturbance which he cited. I’d have assumed that you’d have just as much problem with those things! They are simply more examples of people being inconsiderate and ruining the dining experience.

    Colin – I don’t think this is about ‘banning’ anything, it’s just about people having a bit of consideration for the other human beings in their vicinity. In which case someone with highly luminous clothes would indeed be considered rude. However it’s obviously much more awkward to remove all your clothing than it is to turn down screen brightness or put away the iPad!

    People using phones in the cinema is actually starting to make me more reluctant to go to the cinema. Which is a very sad thing indeed.

  9. The brightness being turned down seems to be the answer so a clear case for the restaurant (and all similar restaurants) having a rule – screens should be turned down after 7pm or something. “We ask that screens are not too bright,” from a waiter should cover it. If it happened again I’d email them. If possible quiet/noisy areas would be a good idea and help with this sort of thing.

  10. “You know, if you gave some people the choice of taking their clothes off or putting their iPad away…” [Sorry, can’t ‘log in to reply’ to Dave’s comment] – leads me to think screens may be particularly irritating – the flickering brightness, the ‘what’s on it’ niggle, the widespread screen addiction and need for respite, addicted or not.

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