A couple was seated in my section late one Wednesday night. After giving them a moment to get comfortable I went over to perform my spiel — the Welcome, the How are you doing this evening, and the drink specials — much as I do for every other table every other night. But instead of a response or acknowledgement of some kind, I was ignored. Something was much more interesting to them than the menu, the restaurant, and anything I had to say.
The couple was nose deep in each of their phones from the moment they sat down until the moment they were asked to leave, because we were closed. By then they had spent over $100 in three hours, and the couple was very adamantly disappointed of this when I presented their bill to them. I can only assume it was because they hadn’t actually enjoyed a moment of their experience, and had simply consumed their cocktails, shots, and half-eaten meals as fuel for their scrolling thumbs.
I reluctantly accepted their 5% tip, because, what else can I say, our WiFi serviced them much more than I really did.
It’s no surprise that restaurants now regret ever enthusiastically offering Free WiFi! to drive guests inside. They’ve spent thousands to make their venues and atmospheres appealing, they’ve trained servers to be personable and efficient, and the servers themselves work hard to make guests happy. Yet with more and more eyeballs glued to table-side screens, it’s become harder to please a disengaged and disconnected population of zombies.
But connecting to the Internet in a restaurant or elsewhere isn’t the problem — it’s people’s deeply rooted need for constant and instant access to their digital world at any given opportunity. And because I’ve noticed this problem in a public setting first hand, it makes me wonder how pervasive this habit must be in people’s personal lives, too.
This particular couple — whose three hour night out was spent staring at a screen, headphones in, without speaking more than a word to one another aside from sharing posts across the table — really got to me. They looked ridiculous. We’re just not meant to socialize this way. It’s become such a troubling reality to me that people are willing to spend money and go out, yet enjoy none of the experience of being out.
I’m 25, born in 1991. I grew up in the generation that used dial-up to connect to the Internet only if you had the patience to wait it out, that used voicemail to check messages and return calls only when you had the time, and that watched RAZr flip phones get replaced by Blackberries, and those get replaced by iPhones.
The truth is there’s only a generation a few years younger than I am that may actually lack a real understanding of how a person could possibly survive without an Internet connection. They don’t know what it was like because they’ve always had it —and often of unlimited supply. To that generation, I feel like the excuse is valid. But to everyone else, youremember and you know that it’s entirely possible to spend some time without it. You just pretend that you don’t.
The thing that scares me is what this might look like fifty years from now. Will the more generations that don’t know what it’s like to live in a pre-WiFi era lead to more rude restaurant patrons, more unhappy couples, and fewer genuinely enjoyed experiences? Will people’s memories only live in what was documented on their Instagram and Facebook?
What I’d rather imagine is that those younger than me who’ve grown up without ever knowing what it was like before listicles and Kim Kardashian and GIFs will eventually get sick of it all — to a point at least. They’ll be the ones who change the perception that you can’t leave your house without your phone, the ones who don’t ask for WiFi passwords everywhere they go, the ones who go back to flip phones.
It’s entirely possible that all of it could lose its novelty, which absolutely does not need to be terrifying. I want people to understand that being slightly less connected is entirely accessible, manageable, and it doesn’t have to change your life significantly. You don’t always have to be on — you don’t always have to be connected. Maintaining that expectation is neither healthy nor sane, and it’s important that you realize that.
The couple I encountered that Wednesday evening were simply not enjoying themselves. As much as anyone may argue that what I saw was just the way this couple was winding down and who am I to judge — it isn’t the way things should be. And let me be clear that it’s not just them — it’s this mentality that being connected is better, that having something to look down at and scroll through is better than simply staring off into space or saying thank you to the person in front of you.
So the next time you’re out somewhere and you ask for the WiFi password, just remember that the world is still a social place if you let it be.
Use Flipd to achieve better offline balance.