Let's start with a proposition: Nobody likes the guy who whips out his iPhone in the middle of dinner.
In the olden days - say, last year - it was easy to feel put upon by that guy, who would go into that trademark trance at the dinner table while everyone else sat and glared.
But that was before everyone else ran out and bought their own iPhone or BlackBerry or what-have-you. Before iPads ruled the world. Before news of an iPhone software upgrade (like this week's) was acceptable pub conversation.
Join Ivor at noon Monday for a live chat on cellphone etiquette
The catch is that now everybody has a smart phone, nobody wants to be the first to actually use it. We've all been around long enough to know what a Phone Jerk looks like, and nobody wants to be the Phone Jerk.
Clearly, new rules are called for. What's iPhone etiquette in a world full of iPhones? Is it possible to produce one at the table without being that guy?
I'm here to tell you that it can be done. Consider the four following scenarios:
1. Cards on table
In some circles, phones-on-the-table rules are followed. In these instances, at the beginning of the meal, remove your phone from your pocket and place it on the right-hand side of your place setting. In instances like this, it's expected that everybody at the table will do the same.
The rationale here is that you, like your companions, are busy social creatures, and important messages could come in at any moment. The office might be on fire. The babysitter might have revelations to share. Company less insufferable than you're currently suffering might want to join.
This is understood. But do not mistake phones-on-the-table rules for a free-for-all. The table-phone is a device for critical calls only. You are not at liberty to idly poke at your phone just because it's sitting there. That way lies Phone Jerk.
2. Settling an argument
Behold the great enabler. The advent of smart phones marked the end of a time-honoured social rite: the futile factual argument. Nobody argues a point with more passion than someone who doesn't know what he's talking about. Was the Golden Gate Bridge built in 1906 or 1912(neither)? Was Seinfeld shot in New York or LA? Absent conclusive information, these arguments could go on for hours.
No longer. Mobile Internet access has deprived us of the ability to deliberately prolong an asinine debate. It seems one can't get more than two minutes into one these days before somebody threatens to check Wikipedia. (Bonus points if you alter Wikipedia before they get there.)
This can be a blessing as well as a curse. Resolving a factual argument is an acceptable excuse for producing a smart phone in polite company. Once it's out, nobody's going to fault you for doing a quick e-mail check, or perhaps commenting on a few dozen Facebook photos. It's only human.
3. As a purposeful insult
In 2010, the only meaningful metric for a conversation is, "Are you more interesting than my iPhone?" Nobody misses the point when the iPhone wins.
Smart phone-checking isn't just a distraction; it's an escape hatch. Are the people across the table from you boring? Is reality generally not living up to its promise as an entertaining place to hang out? Then pull the ripcord!
The effect is seldom lost on one's companions. If you didn't notice that someone's eyes glazed over in conversation, you'll have an easier time spotting it when they produce a phone, interpose it directly between your faces, and then let their eyes glaze over.
Remember to use this method judiciously. If you're constantly pulling out your smart phone, people will assume you're merely maladjusted and will fail to take it personally. Don't let them think you're a jerk when you're really a culture warrior.
4. It's iPhone Time
This is the crux of the matter. iPhone Time is a miracle of modern socialization. It's the flocking behaviour in which - by unspoken consensus - everybody drops what they're doing and checks their iPhones at the same time.
Nobody wants to be the first to pull out their iPhone, lest they suffer the scorn of their peers. But if it can somehow be arranged that at least half of the people present check their iPhones simultaneously, a tipping point is reached. Somebody will say the magic words - "Oh, is it iPhone Time?" - at which point the remaining people at the table will produce their own phones, and everybody will tap away in silence for five minutes before rejoining the conversation, refreshed.
Of course, iPhone Time only works when everybody present has one, which is why it's a relatively new phenomenon. I see it more and more. People without phones to check will be left squirming unless you give them something to pass the time. (Try a newspaper or a squeeze toy, if one is handy.)
The trick to iPhone time is achieving it in the first place. How to reach the tipping point, where half the people present have their phones out? Subterfuge can help. Invent a pretext to call someone at the table. Or pick a factual argument ("Unless I'm mistaken, Louisiana was originally settled by Belgians"; see No. 3.) and take advantage of the scramble to check the Web.
Alternately, wait for somebody to go to the washroom. The critical mass will diminish, and when the person gets back from the loo (where, of course, he was checking his own phone), he'll look at the gathering and say, "Oh, is it iPhone time?" And lo, it will be. Everybody wins.