Modern Etiquette Experts' Tips for Electronics at The Dinner Table

Here’s how to prevent screen time during suppertime.

Young man reading a text message during a dinner party with friends
Photo: Goodboy Picture Company/Getty Images

Certain etiquette rules are timeless. Handwriting thank you notes, sending prompt RSVPs, and saying "please" and "thank you" will never go out of style. Other lessons become outdated, as evidenced by our 1972 Party Cookbook: "A thoughtful hostess always provides filter and non-filter cigarettes in several convenient places throughout the room." And of course, some etiquette edicts must evolve with the times. The digital age has ushered in an entirely new set of manners conundrums. Is a thank-you text ever okay? When is it too late to send a text or email? These are just a few of the digital etiquette matters we've attended to lately. The issue of electronics at the dinner table is the next mountain we're going to climb, but we'd never dare go it alone. We enlisted the help of two experts in the field to see how they tackle those pesky screens at suppertime.

Amy Rainer, a Birmingham, Alabama-based etiquette teacher, writer, and speaker behind Etiquette with Amy, understands that having a completely tech-free life isn't realistic.

"With many menus being accessible by QR codes at restaurants, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents who strive to achieve a 'cell phone free' zone for their families," she says. "When our extended family of 11 went on a cruise several years ago, we implemented the 'cell phone towers' in the middle of the table. Everyone, including adults, placed their cell phones in the center of the table face down on top of each other. The kids and teens liked seeing the Jenga-like tower in the center of the table! We used this as a chance to tell them, 'We value our time together at the table, and all of us are cell phone free for 30 minutes.'"

That example led to future success with the "cell phone tower" strategy for Rainer's family.

"When we arrived back home and had family gatherings, our youngest even encouraged us to make a couple of cell phone towers on my mother in law's entry hall table," she says. "We felt like the message was clear to her. Our goal with the children was to help them realize that being present with people when we are together, whether at the dinner table or just a family visit, is the most important thing. Our cell phone messages will be waiting for us when we finish our meals or visits."

Just like any habit, the act of putting away those phones will take practice, but it will become second nature eventually. Next, we turned to Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. Gottsman has several key points on the topic of electronics etiquette.

No Surprise

  • If it's a family dinner night or holiday gathering, everyone should know your expectations in advance. Tell them that dinner will be served in 15 minutes and give them a 15-minute warning to take care of personal "business" before arriving at the table. This allows everyone time to finish their game, find a good place to pause their podcast or book on tape, or a close a chat with their friends. Of course they would not be doing any of this except chatting with her friends if it were a holiday gathering, but for a day-to-day meal, it allows people to manage their time before taking a seat at the table.

Request and/or Suggest Silent or Do Not Disturb

  • As the host, especially when you have planned and executed a special holiday meal, you want everyone to be present—mind and body. You may politely suggest that everyone put their phones on silent or DND as they gather together to break bread and keep it on for the duration of the meal. This gesture, even without the host suggesting it, shows respect for the host. A gracious guest will do it without hesitation. It also removes the temptation to check your phone if you hear it or feel it vibrate.

Don't Expect Miracles

  • Both children and adults will eventually become weary with endless stories about people they do not know. Keep the conversation lively and make sure everyone has the opportunity to talk about themselves. Younger children especially are going to get antsy, and allowing them to excuse themselves to watch a short holiday movie after dinner, instead of being expected to sit quietly while listening to one more of Uncle Ed's endless stories, may be appropriate after a certain length of time.

The Phone is Not the Villain

  • We all rely on our cell phones from work, to entertainment, to connection with friends and family. Using good judgment on when and where we use it is what matters. The host (or Mom or Dad), can implement a "cell free zone" at the dinner table. It's not an unreasonable request and will set the standard for what you expect. It will soon become a habit. This rule can apply to day-to-day meals, as well as at the holiday table.

Forget the Basket

  • I do not believe in collecting cell phones and putting them in a basket. It feels punitive and sets the wrong tone.

So whether you follow the "cell phone tower" model or politely ask guests to keep it on silent, there are several strategies you can implement to limit screen time at the table. Whichever method you choose, it's clear that it's a matter of sticking to it and creating a good habit that will last. Now if you'll excuse us, we're going on Do Not Disturb, y'all.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles