A short time ago, I was at school eating dinner. Just after I’d sat down, a few of the HS students joined me. This is a rare occurrence. Usually, the teachers eat at separate tables from the students, but it didn't happen that night. Getting to eat with the students was a nice surprise.
The students were among the better English speakers in the school. As they joined the table, I could see that all of them were carrying their smart phones, which wasn't surprising.I figured that sooner or later, the students would stop eating and pick them up to do whatever students do with their smart phones at dinner. Sure enough, it began with Gina.* She was sitting next to me and had the phone out within seconds of sitting down. I wasn’t about to let a potentially fun conversation with the students pass, so I intervened. The phones could stay away for one dinner and we could enjoy some conversation. I tapped her on the shoulder and when she turned, I made eye contact and said, “Gina, we’re eating. Put it away.”
A look of surprise shot across her face. She hadn’t expected me to say anything. She murmured, “But, my friend…” and trailed off.
“No. We’re eating now. You can message later.”
My words came slowly and calmly. She acquiesced and put the phone away. We proceeded to have an enjoyable talk about the food, the weather, and about how the school week had been progressing. It’s true that I was “testing” their English, but they were fine with that. Everyone spoke, or tried to speak, at any rate. When they faltered, their classmates would help, and failing that, I’d help with the appropriate words or phrases. We touched upon a few expressions and topics from class, and they enjoyed “testing” themselves. During the conversation, Gina’s phone stayed out of sight. Everyone else’s phone did too. It made for a refreshing change: Actual conversation at the table. As an added bonus, I noticed a less fidgeting among the kids because now that their phones were off-limits, they could focus their energies elsewhere.
When the conversation was winding down and people were finishing eating, I turned to Gina and said, “Okay. We’re done. Now it’s okay.” She said thanks, but she didn’t get her phone out right away. I thanked her for complying and said goodbye to everyone.
It felt good to put a stop to the phones at the table. In the past 10 years I’ve witnessed how cell phones have eroded social etiquette to the point where people think nothing of checking their messages in the middle of a conversation. Such behavior is rude and inconsiderate because it shows that the phone is more important than the other person. It shows that the online world trumps the real world and that the real world isn’t important enough to acknowledge. By and large, it has been younger people who started acting rudely thanks to their embrace of certain technologies, but the rudeness can be stopped. Adults and elders may not hold the same sway as they used to, but their behaviors do not go unnoticed. Part of my job as an educator involves guiding young people as they make their way in the world, and that includes warding off rude behaviors. The job is as much about readying them for the future as it is about guiding them in the present.
*Not her real name.
Korea Joongang Daily: "14% of schoolkids are addicted to smartphones"