Every night, I watch as couples, friends, and families come together and enjoy an incredible meal. I work at an upbeat, trendy, semi-casual restaurant in downtown New York City. The atmosphere makes for a great celebratory destination.
Frequently throughout a shift, I will pass by a table where at least one guest is on their phone, completely disengaged from the people in their party. This “sign of the times” is not exclusive to any specific demographic—younger, older, couples, families, bachelorettes, business dinners, every race and ethnicity.
It isn’t rare for me to have a table of 20-somethings or younger, celebrating a birthday. It is rare, however, if their entire meal goes by and not every single one of them is on their phone at the same time.
One family in particular stands out in my mind. A mom and dad in their late 40s, a teenage daughter around 16, and another daughter about 8 years old, all sat together in a banquette on a Saturday night. They ate their meal together and when it was cleared, I began to approach the table to drop off dessert menus.
I watched as all three of the older family members stared blankly into their phone. Like I said, this was nothing new. But shrunken down between them, in the back of the banquette, was the youngest daughter sitting quietly, staring across the room at a family laughing together. Her eyes looked so sad and lonely.
Her mom and dad were scrolling through social media, completely oblivious to the isolation they had created between their children and themselves. This little girl was unseen and she knew it. It broke my heart.
I couldn’t help but think of my parents and my brother, and how much I miss my family. We only get to see each other twice a year and the week that I get to spend with them always goes too fast. It never feels like enough. Not a Saturday night goes by without me wishing I was having dinner with them instead of serving other families.
I wanted to go over to the parents and tell them to look up, to see that their children were beside them, and what a blessing that was. To look into their youngest daughter’s eyes, to see the pain that I, a stranger, could so clearly see.
But I didn’t. I needed to keep my job and make the money from the gratuity of this family’s dinner. And besides, if I wanted to get on my high horse to teach a lesson in cell phone etiquette, I would never get off that horse.
A small part of me wishes that I would have said something to them. I just have to carry that experience with me, those sad little eyes, and make the most of the time I share with others.
From these experiences, I became hyper-aware of the role that my phone played in regards to my personal relationships. Which is why what happened tonight really surprised me.
It all started when I left work this afternoon — or perhaps, it began a few months back. I had been so wrapped up in my non-stop to-do list that it’s hard to pinpoint the origin. So, this afternoon after came home from work, I wanted to get a few things done—clean the house, leave to do a few errands, and then return back home and treat myself to a little TV.
After cleaning and tidying up, I left my house and rode my bike to the store. While I was shopping, I looked at my phone three times in ten minutes, the last time noting that the only thing that had changed on my phone was the time. I then realized that I had checked my phone at every red light on my ride to the store, then again when I locked up my bike, again when I got to the store and multiple times while I was picking out groceries.
As I started to recall the amount of times I had looked at my phone, I clearly identified that I was on auto-pilot all evening long, and that this was not just a behavior that occurred once I left my house. The entire night, not a single text had come, nary a phone call, and a dearth of emails were in my inbox.
I didn’t recognize myself. Who was this girl looking at her phone every few minutes?
I wasn’t expecting any correspondence and I had very much been looking forward to my downtime. Why then did I feel the need to be so on the grid? If I had been receiving phone calls and texts, would I have noticed that I was so disengaged to my surroundings and so focused on the incoming stimulus or lack thereof?
And then it dawned on me. I was the little girl’s parents, at the dinner table, to MY OWN LIFE. I was missing out on the perfect fall evening and the bike ride that I loved so much through the East Village. I even forgot to get the one item I went to the store to pick up.
Immediately, I put my phone in my pocket for good. I had a real life internal conversation with myself. Why was I so interested in this little device that was like gravity to my attention span? I really could only come up with one simple reason, one that wasn’t even justifiable, in fact it was pretty lame, but unfortunately probably not uncommon: habit.
Luckily, a habit is a pretty good problem to have. It is so easily fixable with even the slightest awareness and the simplest of dialogue: I don’t need to be available 24/7 for everyone and everything. What’s important is right now, right here, right in front of me.
The crisp autumn air.
My cats vying for just a wee bit of love.
The tea kettle that just whistled.
My fiance who will be arriving home any minute to kick off our weekend.
And the bottle of wine we will share.
Right here, right now.