Get a Grip! How to Set Electronic Boundaries at Holiday Celebrations

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Just about everyone has had that moment when they gave up trying to communicate with someone engrossed in a smartphone, tablet or other electronic device. There’s not much gratification in talking to the top of a bowed head, especially when that person hasn’t heard a word you’ve said.

Such encounters are frustrating at any time of year, but they’re particularly exasperating during the holidays, jam packed as they are with parties, family gatherings and dinners meant to foster fellowship.
“The person you’re with is more important than technology,” says Gail Madison, who teaches at the Madison School of Etiquette and Protocol in the Philadelphia area. “This is what memories are made of. Holidays and family. And too many families are losing out on that.”

There’s an art to gently prying a technophile away from his or her phone, tablet, e-reader or Gameboy.
It isn’t OK to blatantly call someone out for being rude unless it’s your child, your employee or your spouse, and even then it’s better to take the person aside and say something privately, says Melenie Broyles, a teacher at Etiquette Saint Louis/Chicago.

“It’s not going to make awkward moments with strange Uncle Larry any better to call attention to his bad manners,” she says. “The better way is more subtle. I like to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ll wait until you’re finished.’ They usually get the hint.”

Technology manners are so universally lacking that there’s a growing custom of avoiding the issue altogether by confiscating devices at the door or encouraging guests to leave devices at home.

“I do all the holiday hosting in my family, and I put it on the invitation, ‘Be prepared to unplug,’ ” says Jules Hirst of Etiquette Consulting Inc. in the Los Angeles area. “They know ahead of time that when they sit down to eat, the expectation is that they will be present in the moment.”

Meeting that expectation is harder for some than others.
Fifty percent of teens admit they are addicted to their mobile devices, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides reviews and age ratings of all types of media. Parents think the problem is even worse, with 59 percent reporting their teens are addicted. Common Sense Media surveyed 1,240 people consisting of parents and children ages 12 to 18.

But the problem isn’t the exclusive purview of young people. Adults can be just as bad, even whipping out devices during films and live performances.

“Parents need to remember that we are the examples,” Hirst says. “Kids don’t pay attention to what we say as much as what we do. If you don’t want your child on a device at the dinner table, you shouldn’t be on one either. That’s for all meals, even eating out. It doesn’t matter how many stars the restaurant has. Whether it’s fast food or fine dining, pay attention to who’s in front of you.”

There’s a fine line between a simple lack of courtesy and full-fledged addiction, says psychologist Dr. Ryan Fuller, clinical director of New York Behavioral Health.

“It’s not really about how much time you spend on technology as much as it’s about whether it’s having an impact on your work, your family or your romantic life,” he says. “If you’re reaching the point where you can’t function or socialize because you have to check email all the time, that’s becoming compulsive.”

Fuller advises patients to disconnect at least part-time so that technology doesn’t overtake their lives.

“Obviously there are some really important jobs where you need to stay in touch, but set aside a time for it,” he says. “Give yourself 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes at night so that it’s all bunched together instead of being on a device constantly throughout the day.”

Ideally holiday guests should turn off devices before interacting with friends and family, but that isn’t always possible, says Ron Moody, assistant professor and program director of information technology at South University in Montgomery, Alabama.

“It depends on your level of responsibility,” he says. “Teenagers aren’t taking care of anybody, but if you’re a parent of kids who are home with a sitter, or you’re caring for elderly parents who might be sick, obviously you need to be available and know what’s going on.”

Put your phone on vibrate and excuse yourself to take a call if necessary, but don’t ignore the person you’re with or talk in front of them, Moody says.

Another strategy is to customize ringtones for individual callers, he says. “That way you can tell if it’s a call you absolutely have to take or can just let it go to voicemail.”

Etiquette expert Broyles finds it distressing when guests are toying with technology for reasons that aren’t urgent.
“Most of our clients are not trying to get ahold of us on a holiday,” she says. “If it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, they’re trying to engage with their families, as well. Surfing the internet because you’re just bored tells the person you’re with that there are other things you would rather be doing than talking to them, and that is certainly not a good message to send anyone.”