Situation Comedy

May 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“If there’s one second of spare time, and if you look away from him and lose eye contact, he immediately whips it out and starts looking at it,” she said.
“She” is Evvajean Mintz, speaking about her husband, Richard, a partner in a Boston law firm. His annoying bit of dinner-table behavior is the subject of an article in the food section of the yesterday’s New York Times. The “it” she is referring to, as you have no doubt guessed, is his Blackberry.*

Cellphones and Blackberries are the new normative battleground. The rules are far from clear. Adults think it’s rude to text at the dinner table; obviously many kids think otherwise. In fact, I wonder if there are any situations at all that these kids would redline for texting.

Most people think that you shouldn’t make cellphone calls in a theater – most, but not all, for the management has to remind people of the rule. But what about on public transportation? Some buses ban them; others don’t. Some commuter trains have cellphone cars the way they used to have smoking cars. How about sporting events? My sister-in-law complained about cell-phone users at the Yankee game.

Sometimes our reactions are personal and rational. We can’t enjoy the play or movie if we have to listen to competing cellphone conversations. We know that the kid who is busy with his Blackberry in class is not giving us his full attention. But more often our reactions are social. We are acting not as individuals but as members of society. We resent the texter or talker not out of self-interest but on behalf of the social situation. As Goffman says, we have a stake in the situation that we find ourselves in, and even though we may have absolutely no personal connection to others in that situation, we think that they too should show their commitment to it. The cellphone/Blackberry user is saying to all those present that despite her physical presence, she herself is not part of the situation. Her allegiance is to others elsewhere.

The Times reporter talked with danah boyd (or as the Times style sheet insists, Danah Boyd), who says that teenagers are
just doing what they’ve always done: hanging out with their friends.
The cellphone makes it possible to bring your social circle to the dinner table. “You don’t really have to disconnect,” she said.
That’s putting a smiley emoticon face on it. The teens are not bringing their social circle to the table. Instead, what the others at the table see is a teenager who has disconnected from interaction with them in favor of some distant, private, and invisible friend.

I don’t mind if the woman on the bus is reading the newspaper or listening to her iPod or talking to the person next to her. I don’t mind if the guy at the Yankee game is yelling out his assessment of the players’ abilities. But if they’re talking on their cellphones, that’s just not right.

*Seinfeld viewers may be reminded of a bit of dialogue from The Stand-in episode (1994). Elaine is explaining to Jerry what happened on a first date: “He took it out.” (Watch it here .)

That was then. But if it were now, and if the guy, just prior to a possible first kiss, had taken out his Blackberry and started thumbing it, Elaine might have similarly decided that she wanted nothing more to do with him.

Update: Randy at Potato Chipping has a nice post noting that the Times seems to be on a moral-panic campaign to turn texting into a social problem. The texting-at-table article is a sort of follow up to a more “serious” article that appeared in the health section a day or two earlier.

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