The Dining Hall Connection
As I eat my white bean soup in the dining hall, a group of girls to my right sit down with grilled cheeses and discuss weekend plans. To my left, a boy scrolls through Twitter, munching on a salad. The girls’ meals are gone within five minutes, but instead of leaving, they lean back in their chairs and chat for another half hour. The boy with a long-empty salad bowl also stays and continues scrolling on his phone. Engulfing the dining hall is a loud and lively buzz, one that is typical around mealtimes. This scenario exemplifies the social atmosphere of the Top of Lenoir dining hall (ToL) at UNC Chapel Hill.
ToL allows for a break from academics at UNC by encouraging community over shared meals. Whether sitting in a group or alone on a phone or laptop, students are connected through some form of socialization. Because college students are frequently criticized for technological dependence, I wanted to understand the extent of digital communities’ impact in a physically social area. Therefore, I conducted an ethnography to investigate the culture of dining hall connectedness forged by both verbal and nonverbal communication. At ToL, this connectedness is created by the practice of eating together, a relaxed environment, and a cultural acceptance of technological communication.
ToL provided optimal opportunity to see how technology affects the social interactions of millennials. I ate at two separate mealtimes – once around 12:15 p.m. and the other around 6:30 p.m., with each observation lasting an hour. During the earlier mealtime I sat alone, and during the later mealtime I sat with a group of students. I took part in the culture but never directly told anyone about my study. Sitting alone, I took notes on my laptop to create the illusion that I was doing schoolwork. When I sat with the group of students, I inconspicuously took notes on my phone for minimal disturbance to the culture’s natural flow.
I interviewed six individuals, two who were sitting alone and four in the group. Individually, I conducted direct interviews, but for the group observation, I informally worked the interview questions into conversation.[i]
Commensality is the practice of eating with other individuals, which reinforces social ties and helps build relationships with others (Sobal & Nelson, 2002). In ToL, the layout itself encourages commensality – long, physically connected tables allow for large groups. The layout steers students towards verbal communication. In fact, demonstrating how the practice of eating in a group evokes verbal connectedness, one female said, “I absolutely feel connected. I like talking to my friends while we’re eating” (Personal interview, November 1, 2016). A male sitting in the group chimed in, “Even if we’re not talking, I want to be present with these people because we found time to eat together” (Personal interview, November 1, 2016).
You may be asking yourself why eating together results in more student connectedness even if there’s not explicit conversation. The answer lies in the historical purpose of shared mealtimes.According to Ochs and Shohet (2006), dining halls are such social places on college campuses because mealtimes are “central to defining and sustaining” (p. 37) social units. They argue that even if conversation is not taking place, individuals pick up on social cues, strengthening overall communication. The physical practice of sitting at a table with your peers creates kinship, conversation or not.
Commensality is a reason why individuals who sit alone in the dining hall also feel connected, despite the fact that they aren’t sharing a meal with a group. When speaking with a girl eating alone and watching Netflix, she told me that she likes relaxing at ToL rather than her dorm because “…there are so many people around. We’re all together for the same purpose” (Personal interview, November 1, 2016). This exemplifies how sharing a practice creates connection. Even when sitting alone, commensality forges connectedness (Sobal & Nelson, 2002).
The relaxed environment of ToL is vital to student socialization, because they need a site providing connection outside of academia. Due to the absence of formality, students generally find that dining halls provide a respite from stressful interactions (Spiteri, 2014). In ToL specifically, the site itself is inviting. The walls are neutral, but each food station boasts a distinct bright color – the burger station is orange, the burrito station is light green, and the vegan station is aqua. Large windows beckon in natural light, mitigating the need for the harsh fluorescent lighting typically found in academic buildings.
One male student sitting alone while working on a paper said, “There’s always activity, I like to do my homework here because there’s white noise and it’s not as intense as Davis [Library]” (Personal interview, November 1, 2016). The student indicated that he chose to study at ToL specifically because its relaxed environment made him feel less pressured while doing work. Thus, students can either study without the presence of pressure, or they can simply enjoy a meal together. Regardless of students’ reasons for being there, the physical environment of ToL makes it a relaxing area to participate in socialization.
Surely in an environment where verbal conversation is so prevalent, you would think that students sitting alone on their phones would be viewed as outcasts – at ToL, this is not the case. In one interaction, three students sat one chair down from another student scrolling through his phone. A group member if the seats were taken, and the student said, “Go ahead.” There were brief smiles, and that was the extent of the interaction. According to Barker (2012), this is because younger generations share an understanding that social media connects to virtual communities. Whereas an older individual may have viewed the phone usage as antisocial, the group understood that it was a form of “social compensation” (Barker, 2012, p. 165), simply meaning that the student was choosing to nonverbally communicate with others through his cellphone. This understanding of technology contributed to the culture’s connectedness.
Because social media is used to maintain connections with peer groups (Barker, 2012), the group I sat with agreed that you “…can talk to anyone at any time with a cellphone” (Personal interview, November 1, 2016). Technology bridges physical distance, allowing millennials to reach more people than past generations. Thus, a generational acceptance of nonverbal communication contributes to ToL’s connectedness.
This ethnographic study demonstrated that students at ToL exhibit a cultural value of connectedness through informally shared meals. Though millennials are often criticized for technological dependence, it’s interesting to see that millennial students don’t seem to have an issue with their peers being on technology. Although there are times students agree discretion should be used for sake of respecting others – such as in the case of direct, one-on-one conversation – students ultimately recognize the importance of digital communities to their culture and tend to not discriminate against those who use technology as a form of social compensation. For millennials, different methods of communication hold great significance to overall socialization.
Because communication is universally significant, in the future it would be interesting to investigate how commensality and technology plays into connectedness internationally. However, with regards to this ethnography, I found that connectedness is a major cultural value of the millennial generation, and we now have more opportunities to communicate than ever before.[Word Count: 1298]
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and Education, 10(1), 28-41. doi: 10.1080/17457823.2014.924860[i] Interview Questions
[i] Interview Questions
- How do you choose who to/not to sit with in ToL?
- How do you choose where to sit in ToL?
- During times that you’re eating and using technology, what are you typically doing?
- Do you ever not feel a need to use technology while eating? Why?
- In group social settings, do you ever feel a sudden inclination to pull out your phone and check social media?
- Growing up, did you regularly sit down to eat meals with your family?
- Do you feel as though you’re good at communicating your thoughts and ideas with others? Why?
- Generally, to what extent do you have an awareness of people around you in social settings?