The Modern, Oblivious, Restaurant Diner

Readers, take thirty seconds to read this Craigslist posting, published by an apparently frustrated New York City restaurant owner. (Also here.)

There's so much to say about this posting, starting with the fact that it's possibly not entirely true. Sometimes, though, things that aren't entirely true tend to resemble the truth far more than things that actually happen. (Which is why newsroom editors tell idealistic young reporters to "save the truth for your novel!")

Thus there's a reason why this Craigslist posting resonated with people as much as it did: it shows something true, deeply true, about us as modern customers: We've become needier, more distracted, more annoying, more oblivious, and less and less present than ever. Here's what I mean:

1) We pay little to no attention to reality. Look across any random sample of people today--at restaurants, while shopping, walking down the street, wherever--and you'll see a staggering percentage of them staring or texting into their phones.

2) We're never happy enough with what comes our way. Examples: customers nitpicking about where they sit, getting up and changing tables, micro-managing their food orders, sending their food back.

3) We need to be led, behaviorally speaking, to perform basic tasks, like putting down our phone and opening a menu. And then, later, we apparently need to be led once again to choose something from that menu.

4) We need to make everything we do into some form of conspicuous display.* This helps explain peoples' neurotic need to post photos of their food, or their need to share photographic proof of conspicuous leisure activities over social media. More on this in just a minute.

5) We no longer seem to be "here" anymore. Instead of being present in the here and now, our attention is elsewhere. We're anywhere but where we are.

Another word or two about conspicuous display. It's not just that people seem less and less "here" in the psychological sense. It's that they also need all the cool things they're doing to be seen by people who aren't even physically here with them either. Social media was created to fulfill this need to be seen, and it does it so well that it's almost as if an experience doesn't count--or perhaps never even happened--unless there's some meta-representation of it online.

Look, it's a free country, and the last thing I want is for this post to sound like some "kids these days!" rant. Come to think of it, it can't be a kids these days rant when people of my own demographic are among the worst offenders. But is that little glowing rectangle really that interesting? Is blarfing out our lives online really so important that it's worth interfering with reality to do so?

Readers, what do you think?

* See Thorstein Veblen's difficult but mind-bending book The Theory of the Leisure Class, particularly Chapter 3, "Conspicuous Leisure" and Chapter 4, "Conspicuous Consumption" for more here. For a book written in 1899, it's astonishing how predictive it is of modern consumerism and modern identity construction.

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Stuart Carter said...

the response to the restaurant rant.


What a snobby, pretentious, patronising, self-absorbed, utter prick. I mean, it was all sailing along until the response-author started hammering the rant-author for spelling and grammar. I hate bad spelling and grammar as much as the next guy, but I also know lots of super talented and super smart people whose grammar and spelling are an utter shambles because their brains work differently. When the rant-author started attacking the spelling and grammar as if that made the contents of the original rant wrong, the rant-author went flying over the douchebow.

In conclusion: *drops mic, walks off stage*

chacha1 said...

was this the piece about security camera footage that captured a possible explanation for why it was taking 20 minutes longer to turn a table these days? I read that, nodding along.

I think "pictures or it didn't happen!" pretty much sums up the current social-media culture. And I'd agree that 35-55 yr olds just as bad as, if not worse than, "millenials" when it comes to this.

My theory is that most of us in that middle-age bracket have never accomplished anything that anyone else has really SEEN or acknowledged, and that the constant feed of trivia is serving some neurosis - as you intimated, Dan - about proving we exist. And maybe this applies to all ages.

Lisa Garza said...

I don't ever walk into a restaurant planning to be hungry :20 later...I want the shortest distance from A to food. These people must have just had a snack if they're engaged with all this photography and fooling around.

Anonymous said...

Cellphones are the bane of my existence...people have become so oblivious to the actual occurrences around drives me mad! My husband and I, wherever we go, are constantly amazed by the groups of people who are together but they are each on their phones, probably instagramming the person sitting next to them. And you're absolutely's the people my age who seem to be so caught up.

mm1970 said...

I read that a couple of weeks ago, and also read some comments that others had.

What I found interesting was the comments from Europeans, who basically said - they eat much more leisurely, so the time frame of the new American dining experience would be more along the line of their normal experience.

Daniel said...

mm1970: Fair enough, although I'm betting that the European ideal of leisurely dining doesn't involve a lot of texting or phone-staring. ;)