Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: 'Is using a mobile phone during dinner bad manners?'

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Dear Virginia, My daughter has brought her boyfriend home to meet us and we took them both out to dinner. But there was an extra guest – his mobile phone. During dinner he was perpetually texting and talking to people on the phone – he said it was for his work. My husband was furious but didn't say anything, and I don't know if I should say anything to my daughter. I found it quite aggressive. Are we just being old-fashioned or was this incredibly bad manners? Yours sincerely, Deirdre

Despite the general consensus that to talk on your mobile or text during a meal is extremely bad manners – as you say, the presence of an active mobile is like an extra unwanted guest – I, oddly, have some sympathy with this man.

Firstly, whatever the reason was that he took so many calls, I think it's very unlikely to have been an act of aggression. And I think it would be best if you said nothing to your daughter. As your child, she must know what kind of behaviour you condone and what you don't and she would have been incredibly insensitive not to have winced as she witnessed her boyfriend behaving in such a way, however justified.

But perhaps he wasn't as rude as you imagine. He must have been incredibly nervous about this particular evening. "Meeting the parents" can be really daunting, as it nearly always implies that a relationship is serious. It may have been that he suddenly felt trapped and claustrophobic with all kinds of doubts about the future of the relationship crowding his mind, and being able to talk on his mobile was a way of distancing himself when he got panicky.

Or he might, rather tragically, been trying to impress you. He might have been saying, but not in so many words: "Look, I am perfectly able to look after your daughter. I work so hard I even have to work while I'm relaxing. I'm needed and wanted by the office at all times of the day and night. I am a huge and gigantic cheese."

Then there is the other possibility – that he did need to make some of those calls. I agree, it would have been far better manners to have left the table with an apology, and another apology and explanation when he returned, but there are jobs when you are expected to be on call. As a freelance journalist I like to be available if an editor calls, and get angry and fed up when friends think my taking the odd brief call when I'm with them is some kind of insult. I feel like saying "If I didn't take this call, maybe I couldn't afford this lunch, so just because you have a regular income doesn't mean you have to disapprove of me, scratching about at all times of the day or night, trying to earn a buck."

Or it may be that this man simply doesn't know any better. His parents had never taught him what are known as "social skills". He lacks grace not because he's intrinsically vile, but because he doesn't know how to do grace.

Now I'm not saying that when I'm with someone and their phone rings, meaning I then have to stare into space as they start a pointless 10-minute gossip, I can't get very angry, even though, like your husband, I never show it, hoping that my stony expression and the tension in my face will be read as extreme disapproval. It is always possible, if it's not urgent, to say: "I'm with someone now. May I ring you later?"

But if I were you, I'd give him another chance. I suspect that next time he won't be on his phone so much. And if he is, it wouldn't be too difficult for you to say, now you know him a bit better, "Come on... leave your mobile at the door for once."

M aking a good impression is vital

It's not being old-fashioned. I'm 31, and would consider taking phone calls and writing texts at the dinner table tremendously bad manners. Making a good impression on you should have been a priority. If his work demanded he be in constant touch, he should have excused himself from the table and taken telephone calls outside. If I took a partner home to meet my parents and he behaved in such a way, I would be mortified and question why I was with him.

Sean Barnes by email

I s it worth fighting over this?

It was bad manners. How you deal with it, though, depends on your relationship with your daughter. If you broach the subject is she likely to get defensive? If so, is it really worth fighting over? Give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe it was something very important regarding his work. Don't worry, if your daughter's boyfriend does the same when the two of them are out together, the relationship won't last long.

Claire Jones, Leicester

T he boyfriend is a phone addict

Your daughter has become involved with an addict. The boyfriend is in the grip of this infernal gadget just as much as the alcoholic or junkie is with their respective poison. Should Deirdre and her family have to suffer this unfortunate man again, I'd suggest the following. The moment he reaches for his phone, strike up a conversation that doesn't involve or interest him and continue it, even when he's finished his call, making it awkward and embarrassing for him to re-engage with you. But don't hold your breath. Addicts can be very hard to reach.

Tony Nash, Carshalton, Surrey

Manners are manners

Deirdre, you're not being old fashioned. I'm in my thirties and am astounded by manners regarding mobile phones. I've been out walking with friends who think it acceptable to chat on their phone for 30 minutes. And it's not just young people either. My mother in law, in her Seventies, constantly disappeared the one and only time she's stayed at my parents' house for the weekend (so she could get to know them better, allegedly) to chat to friends on her mobile. Needless to say, my parents thought she was pretty ignorant.

Bek by email

He was nervous

Oh dear. The poor boy must have been very nervous. Mobile phones are a security blanket. He was being vetted and he knew it. People often take refuge in their mobile phones when they are uncomfortable.

Find out how serious your daughter is about this man. If she isn't, you may never have to see him again. However, if he is going to be in your life, ask your daughter to have a word with him and explain that you didn't like what he did, but don't hold it against him.

June, London, NW3

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