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Having a BlackBerry with your meal?

In this technological age, multi-tasking has its place -- but not at the dinner table.

September 22, 2006|Joann Klimkiewicz | Hartford Courant

Mischa, Mischa, Mischa.

Hollywood gossips have been buzzing about actress Mischa Barton's royal lapse in tech etiquette this month. She reportedly left dinner host Lord Freddie Windsor deeply offended after spending much of the evening tapping away at her BlackBerry while seated beside him at London's Kensington Palace.

The former star of "The O.C." may have made her blunder in front of royal company, but she's no different from the growing number of e-addicts so hopelessly attached to their devices that no time or space is too sacred to send or check messages.

Consider them the obnoxious cousins of the cellphone boors -- a quieter offense but no less annoying. But is this behavior rude or just a reality of our times?

Technology develops so quickly "that oftentimes ... the social rules take a while to get codified," says Jim Louderback, editor of Ziff Davis Internet and lead organizer of DigitalLife, a consumer technology show in New York in October.

In the absence of an official manual, Louderback pleads for common sense.

He likens Barton's BlackBerry blip to the social sin of chatting exclusively with the dinner guest on your right while ignoring the one to your left.

"It sends a message to the people you're with that they're not important, that there are other people who are more important than they are," Louderback said. "It's just rude."

Some do it out of habit, multi-taskers who feel the constant need to check in, he says. Some do it to fill in the tiny spaces of boredom or use it as an electronic shield to check out of socially uncomfortable moments.

And let us not forget status. There are people who delight in flashing the trendiest of gadgets, people who like to make a show of their importance or popularity with the incessant messaging.

What really gets Louderback is when a companion sets his cellphone or BlackBerry on the dinner table.

"They're saying, 'Something more important than you might come up, and I just want to be prepared,' " he says. "And that's just wrong."

Unless you're expecting urgent news or you're an on-call professional, text-messaging in front of company is not proper social behavior, said Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work."

"It's an indicator that you're not mentally present," Whitmore said. "They're physically present, but they're not mentally present." Her cardinal rule: "Put people first. The person you're with takes priority over e-mail or a telephone call or a text message."

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