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Using Facebook at the dinner table

December 19, 2015

Imagine that you’re at the dinner table with family, and someone in that family has a phone call from a distressed friend. Presumably, the others at the table would excuse a short departure from the situation in order to deal with it. Wind forward to the 21st century, and we’re not using landline telephones any more, but Facebook instant messaging.

I note with interest the behaviour of older generations – people who reached adulthood before instant messaging, therefore didn’t grow up with it – to others who access their phones and particularly social media, at the dinner table. It would appear that they are annoyed by it, and think that if we’re all together, we should exclusively pay attention to each other.

In a face-to-face situation, particularly a special meeting such as a reunion after a long period of time, I agree with the assertion that we should attempt to give the vast majority of our attention to the other person. However, as a concept of general politeness, this aversion to the presence of social media in social contexts ignores several parts of reality. It is a presumptuous, and entitled way of viewing social media use in group situations.

I have a number of friends who on a day-to-day basis contact me because they are anxious, depressed or lonely. They reach out to friends on the internet to avoid falling into a dark place, born out of being unable to contact friends when you need them. I try to make myself available without being too distant from my 3D life, which means juggling one with the other. My alternative is taking myself away from 3D life and concentrating wholly on social media conversations. If I did this, I would very frequently be entirely absent from my families’ lives. Whatever way you look at it, you can’t justify prioritising eating pie and talking about guinea pigs over the distant emotional crisis of a friend.

The entitlement of the older generation is thinking that if a person is physically in your presence, you not only have priority but deserve the undivided attention of that person. But in a group situation, people frequently pair off into individual discussions in order to keep things manageable. The difference with social media is that this friend is invisible and cannot be heard, nor can anyone chip into that conversation. This may on the face of it seem asocial to people at the table, but I disagree that it’s worse than ignoring friends online. They may not be directly involved in your physical life, but if you don’t get to see them or talk to them often, meal time is often the only time. When you work all day or live far away from people, that’s when social media often happens.

I no longer have to leave the table to have these conversations, and the mistake being made about my access to social media is that I’m plugged in like a machine, disengaged with reality I’m actually multitasking, a skill which is increasing because of these types of behaving. I can’t quite get a handle on why it is so important for me to be wholly engaged in one stream of trivial conversation happening around me, and ignore the perhaps more important one happening on my phone.

This is period and media prejudice. If I took myself out of the room, on a landline phone, with many explanations and excuses, my behaviour would be considered more acceptable. The manner of access is being scorned and disregarded as a thing that teenagers and people in their early 20s do thoughtlessly, not realised we’re being rude. This is a gross misinterpretation of the situation. What’s really happening is that older people undervalue and disregard the importance of relationships which are either made or bolstered online.

We don’t only talk to our distant friends by writing a letter on Sunday afternoons. We provide support, and a presence – in other words, a proper friendship – by not completely shutting ourselves off from contact just because it’s dinner time, or family time. The boundaries between 2D and 3D lives are blurring because of smart phones. It is actually a good thing, because it means that people do not have to withdraw from physical interpersonal relationships in order to keep other relationships which, forever reason, we cannot imminently speak to physically.

If we’re going to talk about rudeness and politeness, let’s examine the assumed entitlement of one person to keep hold of another person, exclusively. Let’s talk about making demands on someone’s attention, without knowing what else is going on in the background of their life; of trivialising relationships which must occasionally be upheld by digital means. I think it’s rude (to say the least) to ignore your friends who you know hit a slump and need company at around 7pm at night, around your designated dinner time.

Parents of teenagers might now me thinking “That’s not what’s going on. They’re sitting there sniggering at some private joke.” Well, no one with mental illness is entirely without humour. The person on the other end is capable of making jokes. You might also be thinking that they do seem entirely shut-off. But they probably would be anyway, because being closed off comes from within, not from a phone. If anything, that phone is helping; if they are depressed, they are the one contacting their friends and talking to them to feel better – possibly not about the problem, but distractions from it.

You might wish they would talk to you, but parents are often ill-equipped to deal with the situation or deemed to be so by their teens. In the absence of an ability to talk about it physically to family – a problem that pre-dates the internet to a spectacular degree – better that they are having some kind of conversation with someone. Saying otherwise smacks of the same assertion that people in therapy are wasting their time, because they “should” be speaking to loved ones.

For various reasons, people find that difficult. And we don’t get to choose when we’re in that low mood. Occasionally, you’re at the dinner table; you can either storm off, or sneakily discuss it at the table. Probably this privacy is part of what so unnerves onlookers. This is not a symbol of one making a reasoned judgement on the state of society to day. It’s more a sign of fear and paranoia about what it means when people speak around you, but not to you. We should recognise that annoyance is not a rational response. Rationalisation comes later, and it usually logically flawed.

Part of intergenerational tolerance is attempting to think about why and how someone is reforming their interactions, instead of assuming the worst. Rather than always thinking that any new behaviour and use technology spells the End of Civilisation, it’s best to think of ways in which society might, in fact, be changing for the better. I get to be there for my friends with mental difficulties, no matter what time it is. I think they appreciate it, and I think it helps them. I’m not going to shove them sideways for the sake of an etiquette born out the same state of mind that thinks you shouldn’t put your elbows in the desk.

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