Are You out of Con"text"?

Jan 24, 2019

By Sander A. Flaum

I’m lifting my glass to propose a toast. But as I seek eye contact with those sitting around the table, I cannot help noticing that some heads are bowed. In reflection? Prayer? No, they’re texting. Although their bodies are present and accounted for, their minds are far away, riding the ether, with no connection with me or, for that matter, anyone else in the room.

I can always snap: “Stow your BlackBerries and iPhones and let’s dine like civilized people.”  But if I do, I know they’ll recoil as if I’m the barbarian. And although their handhelds will scuttle into pockets and purses like cockroaches when the kitchen light comes on, it won’t be too long before they creep back out and the surreptitious tapping resumes. 

Am I crazy? Isn’t a communal meal supposed to be one of the first and last hallmarks of a civilized life? Doesn’t the custom of breaking bread together go back as far as to flickering torches and cave drawings? Have we in our search for instant gratification simply discarded the notion of “class?”  And of course I’m not using “class” in the sense of sociologic or economic divisions, but to describe adherence to high standards of personal behavior. 

I think we’d all agree that a key attribute of “class” is showing concern and respect for others.  But today, many seem to believe that consideration of others is passé. A number of years ago, Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman wrote a book titled: “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” It’s a clever title, and Feynman was an engaging, iconoclastic writer, but if you mull it over, you can see it’s a defense of self-centered thinking. Because if you truly don’t care what other people think, then why not text during a business meeting or a dinner party? Indeed, why listen to those around you at all? Why bother to conceal your mobile? Why even bother to keep your feet off the table?

Consider this: Our social fabric, of which business is just one thread, depends on the idea that we do care about the opinions and feelings of others. Leaders who ignore the voices of their team will soon have no followers. Employees who consistently tune out their managers are already halfway out of a job.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not on an anti-technology rant. Mobile phones can be life-savers. E-mail is a miracle. Texting to save time or in an emergency is irreplaceable, but can’t we keep some perspective? Unless I’ve missed something, traditional vocal discourse—mealtime conversation, a symposium, a brainstorming session, a boardroom debate—still has merit. 

I’m also not on a generational bash. Sure, the average age of texters tends to be somewhat below those who grew up thinking telegrams were speedy, but I’ve been nearly trampled by senior citizens who were more engaged with their mobile device than their immediate surroundings. E-rudeness has no age restrictions.

And I’m certainly not writing about etiquette. I really don’t care if you cut your fish with a fork instead of a knife or if you sniff and swirl your wine glass before taking a sip. I’m making a case for the texters to throw the rest of us a bone and find an appropriate time and place for their mobile hook-ups. 

And while we’re discussing the notion of class, I’d like to echo an appeal penned by Joe Queenan in the July 30, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal (“Hey, Buddy, Keep Your Shirt On!”). For those who think that their appearance is their own concern and nobody else’s—sorry, but you’re wrong. Before parading around shirtless and sweaty, check out a mirror. Dress up a bit and show some class. You’ll be glad you did. And so will we.

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is Principal, Flaum Navigators, and Chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration. Contact him at [email protected]