Some years ago an NBC Television producer invited me, while in New York City, to meet in her office to brainstorm possible psychology-related segments. But a focused conversation proved difficult, because every three minutes or so she would turn away to check an incoming email or take a call—leaving me feeling a bit demeaned.
In today’s smartphone age, such interruptions are pervasive. In the midst of conversation, your friend’s attention is diverted by the ding of an incoming message, the buzz of a phone call, or just the urge to check email. You’re being phubbed—an Australian-coined term meaning phone-snubbed.
In U.S. surveys by James Roberts and Meredith David, 46 percent reported being phubbed by their partners, and 23 percent said it was a problem in their relationship. More phubbing—as when partners place the phone where they can glance at it during conversation, or check it during conversational lulls—predicted lower relationship satisfaction.
Could such effects of phubbing be shown experimentally? In a forthcoming study, Ryan Dwyer and his University of British Columbia colleagues recruited people to share a restaurant meal with their phones on the table or not. “When phones were present (vs. absent), participants felt more distracted, which reduced how much they enjoyed spending time with their friends/family.”
Another new experiment, by University of Kent psychologists Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen Douglas, helps explain phubbing’s social harm. When putting themselves in the skin of one participant in an animation of a conversation, people who were phubbed felt a diminished sense of belonging, self-esteem, and control. Phubbing is micro-ostracism. It leaves someone, even while with another, suddenly alone.
Screenshot courtesy Karen Douglas
Smartphones, to be sure, are a boon to relationships as well as a bane. They connect us to people we don’t see—enlarging our sense of belonging. As one who lives thousands of miles from family members, I love Facetime and instant messaging. Yet a real touch beats being pinged. A real smile beats an emoticon. An eye-to-eye blether (as the Scots would say) beats an online chat. We are made for face-to-face relationship.
When I mentioned this essay to my wife, Carol, she wryly observed that I (blush) phub her “all the time.” So, what can we do, while enjoying our smartphones, to cut the phubbing? I reached out to some friends and family and got variations on these ideas:
- “When we get together to play cards, I often put everyone's phone in the next room.”
- “When out to dinner, I often ask friends to put their phones away. I find the presence of phones so distracting; the mere threat of interruption diminishes the conversation.” Even better: “When some of us go out to dinner, we pile up our phones; the first person to give in and reach for a phone pays for the meal.”
- “I sometimes stop talking until the person reestablishes eye-contact.” Another version: “I just wait until they stop reading.”
- “I say, ‘I hope everything is OK.’” Or this: “I stop and ask is everything ok? Do you need a minute? I often receive an apology and the phone is put away.”
- “I have ADHD and I am easily distracted. Thus when someone looks at their phone, and I'm distracted, I say, "I'm sorry, but I am easily distracted. Where was I?" . . . It's extremely effective, because nobody wants me to have to start over.”
Seeing the effects of phubbing has helped me change my own behavior. Since that unfocused conversation at NBC I have made a practice, when meeting with someone in my office, to ignore the ringing phone. Nearly always, people pause the conversation to let me take the call. But no, I explain, we are having a conversation and you have taken the time to be here with me. Whoever that is can leave a message or call back. Right now, you are who’s important.
Come to think of it, I should take that same attitude home.