Paul Batura: ‘Zombie Eating’ is a sure sign of a coming social apocalypse

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A recent survey of America’s eating and screen usage habits confirms what most of us have observed at restaurants and even inside our own homes – the typical diner is more likely to stare at their phone or tablet than converse with the person across the table.

According to the survey sponsored by Snack Factory’s Pretzel Crisps, 88 percent of those asked admitted to using some type of screen while eating.

The explosion of smartphone and tablet use is revolutionizing culture and daily life in ways almost too numerous to mention. From accessibility to communicability, many of us have a love-hate relationship with our phones and technology.

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After all, because we can be reached anytime and anywhere, we’re more likely to work in unconventional places – including our dinner table or even at a restaurant while we’re out with friends.

“Hold on. I just need to respond to this one,” we might say, looking away from the person in our actual presence, and down to the email, text or post on our phone.

There was a time when the lines were more clearly drawn, of course. It’s not that people weren’t ever interrupted or distracted during mealtimes – but if it was the exception then it’s the norm now.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance and benefits of eating and socializing together, especially for children in a family setting.

What’s curious to me is that so many of us think what’s going on “out there” is more interesting than what’s going on right in front of us.

It’s a lie – and one with deadly consequences.

That’s because it would be impossible to overstate the importance and benefits of eating and socializing together, especially for children in a family setting.

Research has revealed that kids who eat dinner with their parents from five to seven nights per week are three times as likely to have a strong relationship with their mom and dad and twice as likely to have good grades in school than those children who do not follow a similar routine. All the typical “vices” decrease also, including smoking, alcohol use and drug abuse.

Television legend Larry King, a guy who has interviewed over 60,000 people and may know more than anyone about the art of conversation, regularly laments that dinners out with friends usually devolve into the other person being engrossed in their phone rather than his company.

In response and as a sign of protest, King only uses an “old-fashioned” flip phone and refuses to text.

But the problem is hardly limited to the Hollywood glitterati. The average American home is confronted with managing the effects of digitally distracted children and spouses.

What can be done about it?

It’s time to put down the phone, look up at the person across from you – and talk.

For some, this may seem like a daunting task, especially if you’ve become so accustomed to virtual living or are something of an incompetent conversant.

My mother used to say she learned the art of conversation from listening to talk radio. She particularly liked Arlene Francis, the former actress turned interviewer who held court on WOR Radio in New York City for nearly a quarter-century. Non-controversial, Francis could get anyone talking by asking them easy questions – and following up on their answers.

Dr. James Dobson, my old boss and a member of the National Radio Hall of Fame, likens good conversation to having a game of catch.

“If I throw you the ball – if I ask you a question – you need to throw it back it to me in the form of an answer. I can then take that answer and ask you another related question.”

I think that’s good advice. But we can’t just expect the other person to put down their phone. We have to make sure that when they do and look up – we’re ready to actually engage them in worthwhile conversation.

My friend and colleague Tim Goeglein, who served in the Bush White House, likes to repeat the advice his late mother once gave him. Back in the day, the Goegleins used to hold wonderful dinner parties in their Fort Wayne, Indiana home.

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“If you’re going to entertain, Tim,” his mother told him. “You have an obligation to be interesting!”

In the end, I think that’s the antidote to “Zombie eating” – invest in the person or persons at your table by asking them about their lives (They’re alive! They’re alive!)  – and sharing about yours.  Don’t take the people next to you at the dinner table for granted.  After all, time is fleeting, and life is fragile.

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