Mind Your Phone Manners at Dinner—or Pay Up

First person to touch their phone, for any reason, picks up the check.
The smartphone is the worst thing that’s ever happened to polite dinner conversation—or any conversation. Even when we sit down at a table for the purpose of being together, there’s always the temptation to look at our phones. When we do this, we’re sending a message to the people next to us: there is something more important to me than you, and it’s on the other side of this screen.

As your guide to etiquette in this technological age, I’ll remind you here (and not for the last time) of the importance of small gestures. The best way to make another person feel good is to pay attention to them. The quickest way to make them feel small is to divert your attention.

Pick up the Conversation, Not Your Phone

At a meal, picking up your phone is contagious. You do it, and another person will, too. You can quickly end up with a whole table of people who ignore each other.

Fortunately, the same distracted millennials who are likely to pull this maneuver have also come up with a solution to it: the game Phone Stack. While I’m not a fan of cute games—people should be able to treat each other well without crutches—I’m also not in favor of people being made to feel small. Thus, my reluctant endorsement of this game.

How to Play Phone Stack

It’s simple. When you sit down, everyone places their phones face-down in a stack on the table. First person to touch their phone, for any reason, picks up the check.

The accepted rulebook for Phone Stack says if no one has touched their phone by the time the check arrives, the game ends and the check is either split or handled by a prior arrangement.

Alternate Play

Like any good game, the rules of Phone Stack can be adapted to various situations:

  • First Down Bonus: When sitting down at the table, the first person to put their phone down is awarded a drink (or an alternate reward), paid for by the other diners.
  • Family Modifier: The original endgame was designed by young adults who, apparently, can afford to eat out a lot. But Phone Stack works just as well at home. All you have to do is replace “picks up the check” with “does the dishes.”
  • Smartwatch Modifier: If only muzzling phones was enough to keep us focused on present company. Today, many of us wear watches that needle us with the same alerts as our phones. The easy solution is for people to put their watches in their pockets, but there’s a more creative way that adds a frisson of danger: everyone takes off their watch and gives it to the person to their left, who then wears it for the duration of the meal. When a watch gets a notification, the wearer may look at it and show it to the watch’s owner only if the notification is an emergency. This will encourage people to disable unimportant alerts before they sit down.

Where’s the App?

For a period of time, the Malaysia branch of KFC (yes really) pushed a branded social app that automated the game. It was more a marketing gimmick than anything else, but I’ll give it a pass. Whatever keeps people talking to each other is a good thing.


You can also cheat, or at least use your phone to help you win. For example, in the latest update of iOS 12, the iPhone’s operating system, there’s an option to turn on Do Not Disturb mode and have it automatically turn off when you leave. Turn on this option when you sit down for dinner, and you won’t be tempted to reach for your phone (because it won’t buzz).

Phone Stack was invented years ago, but it’s just as important today. And our phone addiction shows little sign of abating. Smartphone alerts may eventually become more subtle, but it’s likely they’ll also get better at distracting us. Maybe we’ll end up wearing contact lenses or cranial implants that ping us with little endorphin hits for every new text message and Facebook like. I don’t know what we’ll do when this happens. But I do know that technology advances inexorably, and that each step brings new behaviors that require new social coping strategies.

And as your Tech Etiquette counsellor, I look forward to providing guidance.

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