Epicuriosity: The cellphone coop

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Published: March 6, 2016 12:02:56 AM

Today, forks and knives alone don’t make up the instruments that facilitate a meal. The cellphone is a faithful companion as well

Today Forks and knives alone don’t make up the instruments that facilitate a meal, the cellphone is a faithful companion as well. A restaurant that discourages the use of the cellphone during dining makes it to the news for being revolutionary in its desire to enforce a dining code.

Others have been magnanimous in their efforts to nudge diners into dining etiquette, offering discounts, cocktails and what not. But the cellphone doesn’t let go or rather its owner can’t let go. At Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant that has been urging people to eat more chicken, has decided to turn its attention to the cellphone. One of its outlets in Georgia, US, has created a cellphone coop like the ones used to keep birds. It asks diners to drop their cellphones in it on their way in. This innovative and imaginative initiative has received a remarkably positive response, encouraging other outlets of Chick-fil-A to contemplate having their own coops. But should the use of cellphones while eating out really generate such varied responses? Aren’t the responses, the gentle persuasions and the overt coercions an invasion of the right to choose? The crux of the issue is that the use of the cellphone when in company is ‘anti-social’, an attempt (now increasingly an instinct) to tune out the real and tune into the virtual.

For some, it is a tool to avoid interaction—a recent research by US-based thinktank Pew on American cellphone users suggested that almost a third of cellphone owners use it in public places to avoid interaction. Virginia Tech University, US, recently carried out a study with 200 cellphone users in a coffee shop. They got some interesting findings. In an interaction that lasted 10 minutes, it was found that conversations wherein cellphone users placed their phones on the table or held it in their hands tended to be far less enriching than the ones held in the absence of mobile devices. The analysts on the research team recorded non-verbal behaviour as well besides conversation.

Another research study team of the Boston Medical Center, US, went to local fast food restaurants and observed parental and family interactions in the presence of a cellphone. The results were yet again discouraging and the headlines generated alarming—’Parents pay more attention to their cellphones than their kids’. The children, for their part, seemed to adapt in different ways to their parents’ engagement with their smartphones: some ate their meal in silence, while others chose to be provocative. Both not the best of responses.

But there is another side to this vexatious issue as well: restaurant service efficiency. After all, it’s not just the guests who carry smartphones, service staff have cellphones as well. Back in the day, the service sequence demanded that the staff be in view and in earshot of the diner, while also providing privacy.

Today, the space between the two has been sequestered by the presence of the cellphone. Although inevitably kept on mute, the cellphone is a ready reminder of the world that exists beyond duty and service timings at the restaurant. It wouldn’t be unfair to state that there is one eye on the glowing screen of the cellphone and its tempting ‘pings’ and another on the customer.

Restaurant management is quick to swoop down on service staff who show such impudence within view of the guest, but there is no control on the constant forays into the back area to sneak a look at the phone, leaving the guest unattended. We have gone long past the stage of censoring ‘private phone calls’ during working hours and have moved into the realm of every person on duty carrying multiple private conversations in their pockets at all times. If diners are to behave, those responsible for providing service must be ‘on mute’ as well. We must also ask if the cellphone, once a convenience, is now increasingly an intrusion? Much has been said of this, even more has been written. Most research studies suggest this is a problem, but are we willing to let go? After all, this is one of the few addictions in our hyper health-conscious world that comes without adverse health impact warnings (although that finds some debate as well).

But surely, that’s only a slim advantage. The silent price it extracts on our relationships, our conversations and the way we interact with the world is worth far more examination. Maybe it’s time to let ourselves out of the cellphone coop!

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad

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