Sure, it's not new that people get interrupted at dinner by a cell phone call. In the past, it must have been a pager, or maybe in olden days, a courier pigeon. But with the increasing number of people getting iPhones (I have to admit that a scion of my friends are over it and are eagerly awaiting the next iPhone) what's happening is now I know what types of messages are interrupting that long-planned catch-up dinner with that over-scheduled friend sitting across the table from me. Whereas before you knew there was a message, now (thanks to the limited number to iPhone tones available) you can have a pretty good idea that Johnnie Q. Public is being texted, has a new e-mail, maybe missing an iCal appointment, or has new voicemail. Even if your iPhone is on silent you can hear the vibration, persistent buzzing (a call), short buzz (everything else).
Of course, this brings up a new set of disclosures, expectations, and etiquette that I'm sure Emily Post would reject out of hand: don't answer; switch off your phone, stupid. OK, maybe not the "stupid" part, but I'm sure she'd lean toward giving your dinner date your full attention. But we all can't be Emily Posts, nor should we. But what are the guidelines? Do you tell the person or persons you're eating with who texted/called/e-mailed you? I kind of want to know who interrupted my dinner. Who would dare?
When I get called, I try not to break eye contact with the person I'm dining with--let me emphasize try. I would expect the same behavior in kind, but I'm sure this would be fantasy in today's world. For example, I taught an ex how to check work e-mail on their iPhone and never saw their eyes again while dining. They are now an ex. Or, what's worse, someone across the table gets a text message that makes them smile more than you can. Ouch!
So, what's the balance? There have been complaints about life getting less personal and communicative, so why spoil a personal face-to-face interaction with acknowledging absent person/communication? That said, anytime there's a gentle e-mail buzz, a jarring ringtone, or a subtle vibrate notification, you and your dinner date know someone, somewhere is trying to make some form of personal contact too. Shouldn't that be acknowledged too? Incidentally, because the iPhone (like many other PDAs/phones these days) has a large screen that definitely lets you see that John Doe is calling or texting in a font just large enough for Johnnie Q. Public to see and read. Oh, the interesting situations this can get you in.
Anyway, the trend my friends and I have been working out to strike a balance between giving your attention to your dinner date and making sure the calls during dinner weren't more important (or from someone more important) is the pre-dessert text break. Purely optional, of course. It was unspoken at first, but now it's explicit. So, during dinner, phones away. After about an hour into dinner, after the plates are cleared but before the post-dinner coffee/dessert gorge fest, phones out: we now all have a short break to check on the very, very urgent messages we may have missed over the salad and seared halibut course, but clearly pressing enough to check before the lava cake comes out.
Oftentimes though, it's disappointing: e-fare e-mails, a news alert via e-mail, an American Idol text, junkmail about a new diet. How fitting.