Social historians may one day write about family dinners as though they were curiosities belonging in a time capsule.
A great Luis Bunuel masterpiece from 1972, a surrealist film called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1), depicted a group of “sophisticated” dinner guests who are repeatedly thwarted in their bid to enjoy a resplendent meal. They are interrupted by various frenetic and further mis communications and misunderstandings ruin all their attempts to enjoy a group feast.
The film strikes a chord today, although for different reasons. Does any family really sit down for dinner anymore? And if they do, are they not just as likely as Bunuel’s eccentric participants to find themselves repeatedly interrupted? Does anyone remember those days when parents and their offspring all sat around a table and discussed their day?
Family dinners are in danger of becoming obsolete. According to the latest survey commissioned by the Bigham’s range of ready meals, the average family in the UK spends around 11 minutes eating dinner . Today’s frenzied pace of life means we expect an “instant” offering. The meal itself is unlikely to be leisurely. And just gathering people around the same table is no small feat. Nowadays, someone is writing an email on their iPhone and another is using Facebook. Not to mention the television being on and surfing between 100 cable channels.
Back when there was just a landline telephone and TV, there was no excuse for the family to shun the dinner table. But something serious has happened. We are witnessing the splintering of family life. This absence of family experiences — by which I mean us all gathering around the dinner table or enjoying the same entertainment — means we lack a shared moral compass. If we all settle down to watch an old sitcom (and we are laughing together), it’s a powerful bonding experience. We see the world through a common lens and share the same reactions because attitudes are usually adopted, even imitated.
No collective consciousness
Now that everyone does their own thing, we develop radically divergent views. Perhaps 40 years ago, those in manual jobs, for example, tended to see themselves in the same “class” as others in manual jobs. They had similar pastimes and watched the same entertainment. Now the old fraternal bonds have been loosened. We are all consumers with our own aspirations and desires. We are all little individual “entrepreneurs” in the sense of pursuing individual gratification.
One of the problems of the new world is the absence of face-to-face communications. As we liaise more and more through gadgets, we may grow out of practice of reading body language and other signals through facial contact. Of course, texting and emailing do have their advantages. Perhaps, for shy people, it’s even transformed their lives. But it’s possible that the new technological age may breed people who are slightly dysfunctional in social situations.
Hey gadget, how are you today?
Children, after all, cannot interact with a gadget. Talking face to face is vital, not just to unburden feelings and emotions, but also as practice in expression. When we engage with others we learn how to read their signals and when to keep quiet and allow the other person to interject. As such, direct human interactions build empathy. The world of gadgets has also reduced out attention span. We’re less likely to pick up a good book if it does not immediately captivate us.
Dinner with the family is — thankfully — unlikely to be interrupted by the strange characters in a Bunuel film. But sundry buzzing noises, as well as the sound of fingertips tapping furiously on mobile phone and laptop keypads, will probably accompany our meal. That doesn’t mean they are any less intrusive. There is only one solution. Make one evening a week gadget-free. Turn off everything: TV, mobiles, iPads, laptop, Internet and sit around a table and talk. For a whole hour. Now there’s a revolutionary concept.
(1) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was a surreal, virtually plot-less film, acclaimed as one of the finest of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel (1900-1983). It starred Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig and Paul Frankeur. It won an Academy Award in 1973 for best foreign language film.