The tiny banquet-style tables in the trendy Upper East Side restaurant were difficult to squeeze into, especially when there were other diners already seated at the tables on either side of us. After we ordered our drinks, and we had begun to discuss my friend’s most recent horrible experience with her dentist--who unfortunately she can’t ever leave because he is also her in-law--both of us began to get an odd feeling. What was it? What was weird? Was there something wrong with the lighting? The music? Then we realized what it was. The couple besides us was not talking. Like, at all. A staid-looking couple in their late 60’s, they were calmly eating their entrees, occasionally sipping wine or water, and simply staring off into space.
Let’s face it: At a restaurant where tables are this close together, there is only the illusion of privacy. One of the things that makes up the imaginary “wall” between diners is the conversation that the other people are having. If people are talking and listening to each other, then they are not, in all probability, listening to you. On the other hand if no one at the neighboring table is talking, then--unless they are actual deaf people--they are going to be listening to you--to one degree or another.
I always wonder what is behind this mealtime mum-ness. Are the two people angry at each other and can’t bare to speak to each other? (I have yet to see three people in a restaurant not speaking.) Are they on their 40th year of eating at restaurants together and are simply too bored to communicate out loud anymore? Or are they really just purposefully eavesdropping, because eavesdropping at restaurants is one of their favorite hobbies?
I don’t think this kind of silent communal eating is a very common occurrence, at least not at New York restaurants. (If anything people here tend to talk too, too loudly and too long.) But it does happen. A friend told me she went to a restaurant in her neighborhood in Brooklyn where the couple beside her was eating together but was each involved in his own, separate silent pastime--one with a book and the other with an iPhone. Even though they were occupied, and not just staring into space, she said it was off-putting. Sometimes a diner is alone, of course. With one person sitting alone, you can’t blame him or her for being quiet. Can they help it if they have no one to talk to? Often a singleton has a book or paper to read; he is probably still listening to some of your conversation, but you can all pretend he is not.
But how do you deal with it if you can’t forget you’ve got dumb people beside you? I have one friend who uses code words for such situations. Paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile media job) he’ll refer to his boss as “Big Balloon,” his nemesis as “Devil Dog” and the head of the company as “Elephant.” (If anyone is actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it might sound like a Disney drug deal.) I myself always want to step in as the “therapist” when I see these no-talkers. “Let me see if I might be able to help you two sort this thing out,” I would say, “You guys must have plenty left to talk about! Who wants to say 'I’m sorry' first? Come on…..you can do it!”
Occasionally I have the impulse (which so far I have managed to squelch) to turn to the non-talkers and ask them to voice their opinion on what we are discussing. “You two look like sensible people, did you hear what my friend here said about my new apartment? What do you think I should do? And by the way, is the lamb any good?”
It’s a free country. If you and your spouse want to go out, eat dinner sitting across from one another without saying one word, that’s your choice. But the very next time I find myself with dumb diners I swear I am going to start talking to them, and I won’t stop until I have discovered the secret of their silent repast. You never know, maybe it’ll make me shut up too.