Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist shares her experiences.

By Julie Rottenberg
Updated November 03, 2009
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I was out for a sushi dinner recently with three girlfriends, happily engrossed in a power session of gossip and catch-up when, somewhere between the miso soup and the spicy tuna rolls, I noticed the friend across from me had her head down and was staring into her lap. It took only a second for me to realize that, duh, she wasn’t about to cry; she was on her BlackBerry. By this point, the others had figured it out, too, and we entered into that awkward but now commonplace practice of downgrading to small talk and vamping until our friend rejoined us and real conversation could resume.

OK, I live in this universe. I get that in some circles this has become the norm. Which is why I decided not to say anything to my friend in that moment. I may hate the fact that the world has gone text-crazy, but I also don’t want to be the uptight schoolmarm, slapping someone on the wrist and possibly killing the good vibe at dinner. (Who does?) But then, a few weeks later, I was out with my husband and another couple and the man did the same thing. Again, there was no “Sorry, this is an emergency” or “Sorry, this will just take a second.” It was presumed that we would all look the other way. This time, though, I decided to bite the bullet and comically (and adorably, I hoped) cleared my throat with a big “Achem!” He looked up at me, startled, then smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry, sorry.” At which point, his wife chimed in with “Yeah, put that thing away!” He didn’t touch it for the rest of the meal.

Now, I certainly haven’t been as bold in every texting situation since then. And the truth is, I’m genuinely conflicted about whether or not to raise the issue. Since it has become standard behavior, many people don’t consider it rude, so it can feel rude to call them on it.

But my experience with that couple taught me that, odds are, someone at every table is just as irritated as you are but doesn’t have the nerve to speak up―until someone else does. Which gives me hope, because I feel like we have this small window of time right now when we can actually do something to stop the madness. To me, pecking at a phone or a BlackBerry midmeal or midconversation should be considered as outrageous as lighting up a cigarette without asking first. It’s just not done. Maybe I should have taken a cue from the no-smoking movement at the dinner with my girlfriends and announced at the start, “Can we make this a device-free meal? I’m allergic.” That way, if someone did need to send a message, she might at least have made a request or an apology first. I would also urge people to pull the coy “Achem!” trick, thereby raising some texting-consciousness, if not eliminating the problem. As it stands, we’ve all gotten used to looking the other way when someone starts texting―as if they’re picking their teeth. It’s a little embarrassing for everyone.

Read more of Julie’s advice about etiquette conundrums.