The Laptop Who Came to Dinner

In a more civilized age, it was conversation, not three-minute spoof music videos, that propelled an evening forward, and arguments were resolved by an encyclopedia, or even by polite détente (“We agree to disagree”), which would either be settled in the following days when one or both parties got around to looking it up, or just forgotten in a pleasant post-prandial haze of red wine and cigarettes. “I had a professor in college who said that no dinner party was complete without a trip to the Oxford English Dictionary to check on the precise meaning of a word,” said Lauren, 28, a publicist who lives in Washington Heights. “Of course, we all mocked him mercilessly for this.”

But what would this professor think of Mr. Collins, the theater director, who not only looks up words at dinner, but listens to pronunciations? “I remember having an argument about the pronunciation of the word ‘feral’,” he said. “I thought FEE-ral, and my girlfriend thought FAIR-al. So you go to Merriam Webster online, and you click on the little microphone and a woman’s voice pronounces it for you. I won that one. But it was a case of the computer actually speaking up at dinner!”

In such cases, argue laptop-at-dinner enthusiasts, the computer is an educational tool—merely a way for interesting guests to learn as much as possible from their evening’s interactions. “We had a dinner party on Saturday night, and the laptop was involved,” said Terra Chalberg, 31, a freelance book editor who lives with her boyfriend in Boerum Hill. “We had gone upstairs to the roof and I pointed out a tree with what looked like blackberries on it, but we all know blackberries do not grow on trees, so one of our guests suggested we grab a leaf and a berry and head downstairs to look it up, which he did. I think it was a positive addition to our party.”

Not all hosts are so sanguine about the intrusion of the laptop into the dinner hour. “What I just find so annoying about it is that somebody will start looking something up and then they won’t ever come back to the table,” said one 30-something editor who lives in Fort Greene. “They’ll just sit on the couch with the computer open, checking their e-mail or whatever. Also, you have personal stuff on your computer, so I think it’s sort of rude.”

“A laptop is kind of an antisocial thing,” Mr. Collins admitted. “Say you’re at a table—only one or two people can see it. So it pulls whomever is doing the research out of the conversation. Usually only one other person is interested enough to look over your shoulder. So what was a conversation among five people is now a conversation among two.”

Ms. Luria says she is “really passive-aggressive” when a laptop breaks up her dinner party in this way. “I put a lot of work into making dinner, and it’s sort of deflating when everyone gets up and crowds around the laptop,” she said. “But my husband loves it. He’s always like, ‘Come see this!’ And I’m like, ‘I’ll check it out later.’ It usually happens when everyone’s sitting around chilling and drinking wine, and dessert isn’t served yet. It hastens the end of things. I would never say my friends were rude, but when I grew up, the TV was off during dinner. It’s the same idea.”

‘Catatonic Robots’

What do the experts think?

Peter Post, great-grandson of Emily and author of several etiquette books, argued that laptops should be banned from the main meal, but are fine during coffee hour, when guests linger at the table conversing. “If you’re using the laptop to look something up in the context of a conversation, it’s really no different than going to a dictionary, and we certainly wouldn’t tell people not to do that,” he said. “The mistake would be checking your e-mail. The minute it becomes something personal, it’s the same as answering your cellphone.” A caveat: “Showing friends what I saw most recently on YouTube isn’t the first place I’d go in conversation. It seems to me that that’s starting to cross the line.” If you see one of your guests holed up with his Gmail while you labor to baste the Tofurkey, Mr. Post suggested putting him to work: “You might say, ‘Tom, could you give me a hand with the drinks?’ Or, ‘You’re a fabulous carver, could you help me carve the meat?’ You want him to stop the behavior, but you don’t want to embarrass him in front of the group.”

Thomas P. Farley, editor of Town & Country magazine’s anthology Modern Manners: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Social Graces, drew a harder line. “People should feel free to describe what they saw on YouTube,” he said. “Put it into words. Or better yet, get somebody’s e-mail address and send them the link after the party, when they can look at it in their own leisure time and not when they’re looking to meet and mingle with other people. To bring out a laptop at a party is the lazy way out. It’s saying, ‘Let’s let the computer do all the entertaining for us, and we’re going to sit here like catatonic robots.’”