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A recent study by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that smartphone use undermines the benefits and enjoyment of real world, face-to-face interactions. In an age of all things digital, how do we balance the utility of technology with real life engagement? We dove into the research and here’s what we found.

We Live in a New Era

Distractions have been part of the human experience forever, be it a crying child, a crack of thunder or birds flying overhead. However, what’s different about cell phones as a distraction today is that they are the door to an infinite amount of possibilities in terms of communication, entertainment and engagement.

While the positive benefits of cell phones are duly noted, such as decreasing boredom or giving a sense of control, the aforementioned study is the first field experiment evidence supporting the theory that smartphones can negatively impact real world social engagement and connectedness. In it, a group of 300 community members and friends participated in a meal in which half had cell phones and the other didn’t. The group that dined with their phones put away reported more enjoyment and engagement than the group with phones, who reported higher levels of distraction and less social connection.

The U.S. Cultural Backdrop

In the U.S., we have more or less reigned in ringing cell phones at movie theaters, in office meetings, and during yoga classes. However, cell phone use in other situations remains quite liberal: A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 75% of adults are okay with phone use on public transit and 38% think it’s okay for use at restaurants. Sushi Lounge in Hoboken, New Jersey, is looking to reverse that trend and has implemented “Reconnect Tuesdays” in which patrons are incentivized with a 20% discount to enjoy dinner with their phones tucked away in a box.

The Global Stage

The global stage for smartphone etiquette varies widely by region. In Japan, a small but very sophisticated country, shared spaces should be treated with respect for the group – which is why you won’t encounter chatterboxes on their phones on the subway. In France, discussion during a meal is a traditional French value. In its wide array of eating establishments from alley cafés to Michelin starred restaurants, more and more restaurants are asking patrons to turn off their phones before dining. Gin Tub in Sussex, England took matters into their own hands by installing copper wire mesh in the ceiling of the bar and tin foil on the walls, blocking cell phone signals from coming in and in fact has a sign: “No Wifi, no signal, just friends.”

Taming the Technology

While we’re still in the age of the Wild Wild West when it comes to taming technology, we can all play our role in practicing appropriate smartphone use to derive its benefits without it negatively impacting our own happiness and that of those around us. Practice these 10 Modern Cell Phone Manners and consider the thoughts below. And after you read, close down that browser and go enjoy your next meal without a screen!

  • Engaging in social interactions is essential for mental and emotional well-being.
  • Bringing a cell phone to the table sends a clear message that whomever may call is more important than the present company.
  • Conversing on a cell phone may be distracting and annoying to others around you.
  • Connecting face-to-face during meals is the goal, not being distracted by the screen.
  • Grunting and pointing at the menu when ordering is a faux pas; finish the call first.
  • Processing two conversations simultaneously is impossible. at once. Text message after the meal to be fully present with your dining companions.
  • Business dining isn’t about the food, it’s about the agenda and the relationship.
  •   …though sometimes eating out is about the specific wine or cuisine, not just the company or agenda (and the chef certainly appreciates that!). Soak in the experience and let your senses of sight, smell and taste take over.
  • Setting your phone aside during a meal brings back the good old days where family and friends actually interacted in real time and had face-to-face conversations.
  • Parents can teach their children table manners rather than surfing the web.
  • Digitally detoxing – even just for a few hours – is good for the soul and decreases phone dependency.


Sharon Schweitzer and Ashley Blake co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, attorney, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre and the Intercultural Communication Institute, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide (Wiley 2015), now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.

Ashley Blake is the founder of Traverse Journeys, an impact-based adventure travel provider with a focus on social and environmental responsibility. Ashley holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, focusing her research on music for social change in Brazil. Ashley also holds a BA and BS in International Studies and Print Media from Oregon State University with minors in Spanish and Music. Ashley’s academic and professional background merge in her work in project management, consulting, and international tourism. Ashley is a fluent Spanish speaker with basic skills in Portuguese, German and Arabic with experience in more than 40 countries across the globe. Ashley is passionate about connection, communication and coordination in order to link others with the opportunities and experiences that promote personal, professional and community growth.