Bars and restaurants used to be where people got together to meet and socialize, but now that we’re carrying our social worlds around in our smart phones, the face of “going out” is changing for the worse

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How Smart Phones Are Changing Calgary Restaurant Culture

Stepping into the warm glow of a bustling restaurant with music reverberating through the crowd, a woman approaches the oak bar, unburdens herself of her coat — and reaches into her pocket for her phone. After sliding her thumb across the screen, she taps in a code and starts writing out a message before she even orders a drink, oblivious to those around her.

This is a familiar scene to those who work behind the bar. Perhaps it’s a habit. Perhaps it’s a compulsion. But it’s a phenomenon that has become all too common in just a few short years. A 2013 report by Google estimates that 56 per cent of Canadian adults use a smart phone, a figure that has jumped from 33 per cent in 2012. For those of us out and about in the city, it’s a number that’s most startling for how low it seems.

An Increase in Smart Phone Use in Calgary

Bartenders in the city have noticed the increase in smart phone use. Colin Cuthbert has been bartending in Calgary since 2011, and he says that, over the last three years, the habitual use of mobile technology has become increasingly common. “There is definitely an isolationist mentality now,” he says. “Taking out a phone is the first thing people do when they sit down.”

While working on his sociology degree at Mount Royal University, Cuthbert has worked at Joey Chinook restaurant, Roosevelt on 17th Avenue and is now at Cibo. He describes his early experiences behind the bar at Joey Chinook as community oriented, where it was routine for customers to open up and interact with each other, even if they had never met before.

“But now, it’s hard not to notice the pervasiveness of technology, especially in the social setting of a bar or restaurant,” Cuthbert says. “There have been so many times where I’ll walk up to a table and introduce myself, I’ll be describing the specials, and then I’ll look up and every single person is on a device.”

For Cuthbert, the change has been startling and confusing, especially because he believes going out to eat is as much about engaging with the people around you as it is about enjoying the food.

“You don’t go to a bar to go and sit by yourself; you go to a bar to be surrounded with people in a social setting. But, that being said, people are spending less time with each other and more time with their smart phones,” he says. 

Social Media and Happiness

Last fall, a study from the University of Michigan made headlines for its conclusions that Facebook actually makes people unhappy. In the study researchers found that, as people used Facebook more frequently, their life satisfaction decreased and they reported more negative emotions. 

The study didn’t report concrete reasons for this unhappiness, but research co-author John Jonides said he suspected it had to do with social comparisons. On Facebook, and other social media, people are bombarded with the highlighted moments of their peers, making them feel less accomplished and, therefore, less happy by comparison.

It’s not about having an experience, it’s about everyone knowing you’re having that experience. — Colin Cuthbert

The U of M Facebook study raises questions about what an online profile does for personal esteem and happiness. Social media allows people to control what they share: editing their photos, comments and tweets, sometimes with obsessive scrutiny. People are constantly displaying their life events and activities online. 

Cuthbert describes this as a “disturbing reality” in his work as a bartender. “I think there is an inherent risk in constantly feeling the need to advertise what’s happening in your life on social media,” he says. “It becomes more about advertising than living. There are all of these people going out to eat, posting Instagram photos of their food or drinks, linking to where they are. It’s not about being there, it’s about everyone knowing that you’re there. It’s not about having an experience, it’s about everyone knowing you’re having that experience.”

Digital Media in a Social Context

Maria Bakardjieva, a professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary, has focused her research on how the Internet and digital media operate in social contexts. She has also observed a strong tendency for people to present their social media personas based on what generates the strongest response from followers, which can lead to dissatisfaction with their real life.

However, Bakardjieva is quick to note these tendencies are not universal and overgeneralizations can be dangerous — different people use their social networking functions differently. And, even if our cultural engrossment with technology takes us away from the real world and keeps us from striking up a face-to-face conversation with the solo gentleman at the bar beside us, Bakardjieva says that change isn’t always a bad thing. 

At the same time, Bakardjieva says the rapid advent of technology does encourage some people to isolate themselves, and our culture is going to have to grapple with the consequences in the coming years. “People are missing out on social cues and relationships that are available to them in their immediate environment,” she says. “They encapsulate themselves; they carry this private world that only they inhabit. They’re within their heads as they move through real space and social space.”

Carrying an existing social group around in your pocket offers a level of comfort and safety, but that can also allow people to stagnate, Bakardjieva says.

Historically, a bartender has often played the role of a whisky-prescribing therapist for the lone diner. Someone has a bad day, so they go to the bar to hear the familiar, “Rough day?” that allows them to open up about every detail of their angst. But now, according to Cory Begin,a bartender at Catch & The Oyster Bar for almost two years, people are much more likely to turn to their cellular security blanket than their bartender when they want to unload. 

“People have become much more comfortable with their cellphones rather than new people,” he says. “If someone has a bad day, they’ll sit down and send a text to their wife or their friend instead of talking to the bartender in front of them. It’s just so easy. You get instant gratification from someone you already know.’”

It’s easy, yes. But the comfortable, 140-character reply isn’t always what we need. Seeking refuge in the opinions of like-minded friends stored in our phones can keep us from achieving new perspective, says Bakardjieva. 

“People are missing out on the very awareness of people who are different from them, different from their personal contacts,” she says. “All of that opportunity is curtailed now because their attention is constantly buried in a virtual world. That does create a disconnection, unquestionably, which encapsulates us in this specific social group that we know. We open ourselves up much less for surprises, for meeting new people and for learning unexpected things.”

How Smart Phones Have Influenced How We Interact

This issue also extends into the relationships we have already forged. Begin describes watching couples on dates who rarely look up from their phones all evening, choosing to stick to their virtual world instead of actually communicating with each other. 

And focusing on phones can mean customers actually receive worse service. Begin says he often finds himself addressing guests who are too immersed in their phones to take notice of him, even as he tries to offer them a drink, which actually slows down the service. On top of that, customers often turn to Twitter or Urban Spoon to express their thoughts on their dining experience, cutting the server off from dialogue with the customer.

“Instead of opening up to their server or bartender and actually giving feedback to the source while it’s happening, they turn to social networks,” Begin says. “That not only creates a disconnection between the consumer, the server and the restaurant, but, I think, in the bigger picture, it diminishes your ability to express your feelings in general.”

When you walk into a bar and 50 to 60 people have that blue glow on their face from the screen of their iPhone … honestly, it kind of makes you feel a bit lonely. — Colin Cuthbert

However, Bakardjieva maintains people can’t blame the technology for these changes. “The technology may entice us and pull us in a certain direction, but there has to be a time of reckoning where we learn how to make proper use of these opportunities,” she says. “It is very easy to assign agency and responsibility to something that has just emerged on the market, but the fact is that the responsibility lies with us.”

It is easy to take a seat in a busy restaurant and fall into the temptation to write a quick text message with an emoticon to show your excitement, or type out 140 characters to share a thought with your Twitter followers. There’s less risk in sticking to what you already know.

“Traditionally, bars have been one of the most social settings — everything happened in bars,” Cuthbert says. “A lot of concepts, ideas and ideologies started in the social setting of a bar — and I think that’s currently in contention because the technology is cutting us off. It offers us so much to connect with. But when you walk into a bar and 50 to 60 people have that blue glow on their face from the screen of their iPhone … honestly, it kind of makes you feel a bit lonely.”

So what does this shift in restaurant culture mean for us? As much as technology has given us new avenues to reach out and connect, it has also given us the ability to isolate ourselves — and, by taking a closer look around a bar, you’ll see that we’re letting it. 

That compulsion to check how many “likes” we have received on our latest witty observation is keeping some of us from looking up and expressing that thought to the person across the table as the thought manifests itself. Technology is always subject to change, and we will always be offered new apps and new social networks, but, perhaps, while we have been so absorbed with proving our worth online, we’ve missed out on making the connections that are within arm’s reach. 

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