OPINION - I love using my phone at the table — it would be rude not to

 (Universal Images Group via Getty)
(Universal Images Group via Getty)

I was five glasses deep into the new Beaujolais in The Royal Oak pub on Columbia Road in Shoreditch when I lost the game. It was 2014 and I reached for my phone stacked on top of the others, jenga’d precariously in the middle of the table. “You lost!” my friend Tim said, with a wine-wide Cheshire Cat grin. “It’s your round.” The phone game had claimed its first victim of the night and that victim was me — entirely unfairly, too, for someone who has the attention span of a mite and the forgetfulness of one, too.

A decade later and the phone game — an attempt at enforcing social etiquettes in east London boozers — has transformed into something else entirely. Our friends in Italy have introduced a novel form of bribery. At the entrance to Al Condominio on Via Guglielmo Marconi in Verona, diners are given the chance to “renounce technology”, as though they are giving up computers for life. Phones are handed in. Gaols are locked. Keys are exchanged. Waiters then take the keys off punters and give them a bottle of vino. Diners are encouraged to focus more on the tortelloni al ragu, and each other, than what Aunt Joan is up to on Facebook. In fair Verona, no less.

Shakespeare might have talked about grudges and mutinies in the city in Romeo and Juliet, but perhaps he was really talking about iPhones.

My phone is like the daemons from His Dark Materials, part of the soul attached by an invisible cord

The bribe seems to be popular with the Veronese. Some 90 per cent of customers at Al Condominio have decided to give up their phones in pursuit of wine, but I don’t think it’s because they enjoy people’s company. The Italians get a lot right — bistecca and tonnato being two — but jailing phones is a little too far. Phones belong on the table rather than switched to airplane mode in your pocket. They are the fidgeter’s balm and a worry doll for the anxious.

My phone is like the daemons from His Dark Materials: part of the soul attached by an invisible golden cord that when stretched too far hurts. It is my get-out clause. My excuse to leave a social situation when it all gets a bit too much. Who hasn’t picked up their phone once and gone, “Oh, crap, my mum’s calling me”, to get out of a dodgy date? It used to be we’d pop out for a fag, but those days are seemingly on the wane, too. One friend, let’s call her Beth, even has an alarm set for every Tinder date she goes on just in case they are a flop and she needs to leg it into an Uber. Phones are the Good Samaritans of dates gone wrong.

In the name of socialising, we are expected to abandon the very thing that means anyone knows we are alive, half the time. Photos of the food we eat and the places we go tell our parents back home we’ve not gone missing. “I saw you were in Spain last weekend — how was it?” my Dad once WhatsApped my brother. Then again, he is someone who took endless photos of mountains on summer holidays “to show the family later”.

In a pub or a restaurant, the phone is a wingman. A confidant and a friend who can tell if the handsome man behind you in the leather jacket is gay or just a bit metrosexual. They are the soothsayers of sexuality. They are interlocutors, as well, able to translate menus when you don’t know the language. In New York at Thomas Keller’s three Michelin-starred Per Se, I once watched a teenager hiding in her digital dugout while her parents fought over the crisp linen tablecloths. At $390 (£311) per person, wine not included, even they didn’t seem to mind this character from Cruel Intentions playing Pokémon Go. If anything, they were grateful she wasn’t kicking up a fuss.

For those of us who find small talk unbearable, they can even make you look like you have your finger on the pulse. Who doesn’t want to look like they actually know what’s going on in the world and don’t just have their breaking news notifications turned on? When people ask “Where were you when…” I want to know exactly where, and when, and who I was with. And then I want to tell everyone.

A phone is a totem to be carried aloft with pride. So pick it up, fidget, and get away from those awkward conversations you just cannot stand.

Max Wallis is a writer and artist based in east London