In her startling 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle points out that the mere presence of a mobile phone in any social setting is disruptive. It signals that the phones’ owners are not giving each other their full attention.
On a visit last week to Milwaukee, I chanced upon a restaurant that is addressing this issue, something I call “distracted dining.” Café Benelux, a charming eatery that brings to mind a Belgian beer garden, had this sign on the door:
An Evening Unplugged
Connect with friends over the original social medium—the dinner table. Just lock up your phones at the start of dinner and receive 5% off your bill.
August 8, 2017, 5 – 9pm
I went inside and talked with Café Benelux’s General Manager, Sam Denner. She was delighted to tell me about the origin of the event and follow up with me by email after the event’s success.
Brent: Thanks for talking with me, Sam. Tell me how the “friends not phones” project came about.
Sam: The Lowlands Group [Café Benelux’s parent company] partnered with local ad agency Cramer-Krasselt (C-K) to run a one-time event called "An Evening Unplugged." The rules were if you locked up your phone for the duration of the meal, your whole party would receive a 5% discount to their bill.
Brent: A smart idea! Have everyone place their phones in a lock box at the beginning of the meal so that no one is engaging in distracted dining.
Sam: The whole table had to participate to receive the discount. We see a ton of distracted dining going on all over the place—and not just at our specific location. A lot of people have their faces in their phones instead of engaging in what is going on in front of them.
Brent: We’ve all experienced this. Even in a place where social engagement should naturally thrive—eating out, seeing a show, being at a ballgame—people turn instead to their phones. And in a nice restaurant like Café Benelux—where the lighting is as integral to the ambience as the wall art, furniture, and color palette—it’s disruptive to have glare from mobile phones flash around the room.
Sam: I think that one thing we forget about in this day and age is how to connect with one another. We are so wrapped up in our phones, our laptops, social media, you name it—and most of us are addicted to it. All of the staff has experienced greeting tables that are all on their phones.
Brent: Right, there’s an impact on the relationship between the patrons and staff, too. How did the experiment go?
Sam: The experiment went great! Those who did participate loved it! Inside the lock boxes were a set of conversation starters to get people talking. I feel like if we had more restaurants or local business that did something similar to what we did last night with the Evening Unplugged event, it would give people the opportunity to decompress, raise their eyes up to what’s going on around them, and enjoy the environment and people around them. We are all guilty of this, even myself.
Brent: Phone use, like yawning, seems to be contagious. Once one person whips it out, and others follow suit, either to check their own feeds or show something to others—something they might just as easily be able to describe with words and gestures. And then the device becomes the focus of the conversation.
Sam: We did have those that were pretty reluctant or just did not want to take part in the event. I was surprised by the number of people who opted out of giving the “phone valet” a chance.
Brent: Well, it was the first time. Patrons may warm to it over time. Will you do another Unplugged night in the future?
Sam: I would love to try this out again. I felt like this really encouraged people to spend time with one another and really enjoy the atmosphere in which they are a part of. Especially for those who sat outside. The view of Milwaukee is amazing from the rooftop, and I feel when you separate from technology you can appreciate it more. I think the more we are aware of what we are doing, we can help change it in others.
Brent: I appreciate your doing your part to remind us that the dinner table is indeed the original social medium. I hope you inspire other restaurants to try something similar. You might be interested this other interview I did with a business that is also looking to combat “our addiction to distraction.”
Sam: Thank you!
Readers, there’s a wonderful quote from a former Stanford professor, Clifford Nass, who warned us a decade ago that the increasing use of media and social media eroded social and emotional development. He said, “We’ve got to make face-to-face time sacred, and we have to bring back the saying we used to hear all the time, and now never hear, ‘Look at me when I talk to you.’ ”
Find more reading about human/computer interaction on the Resources page of this website.