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Are you guilty of ‘phubbing’ the people you love the most?

Put down your smartphone. It's not only rude, but ironically, it also robs you of the chance to connect.

Phubbing. We’ve all done it or, at the very least, have had it done to us.

Now, before you get outraged and insist that’s not the kind of person you are, know that phubbing is a portmanteau for "phone" and "snubbing": A quintessentially millennial term that describes the act of ignoring the person you’re with, whilst you use your phone.

When you talk to your friend and your phone pings, and you break the conversation to respond to the message. When you play Candy Crush or check email at the dinner table with your family. Or you’re in the car and scrolling through Facebook, while your husband is driving. That’s phubbing.

(Photo: Pixabay)

Each of these actions, and its uncounted variants, removes you from the present moment and immediate physical setting, and into an electronic social environment. Do you see the irony here?

So, here’s the thing. Whilst it’s true that the mobile phone has changed every part of our lives – we read, listen to music, talk, make appointments, plan our lives, communicate, research, work, and navigate on it – what’s less obvious is the extent to which this little handheld device has changed the way we conduct our relationships, particularly, our personal ones.

In fact, in their study, My Life Has Become A Major Distraction From My Cell Phone, Assoc Prof Meredith David and Prof James Roberts make the point that phubbing may adversely affect marital satisfaction because of the feeling of exclusion it creates.


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Speak to any psychologist or therapist, and they’ll tell you that intimacy and social skills are built over time and in repeated quotidian moments – a dinner conversation with a child about their day, a hilarious memory about a school teacher recalled with a friend on a park bench, a question about weekend plans during a break in an office meeting. Each a seemingly innocuous, perhaps frivolous, conversation, but, collectively, they create bonds and forge a relationship filled with intimacy.


Speak to any spiritual leader and the takeaway lesson is always: Be in the present. We all have a limited time to live on Earth, and so every moment is precious. When we are distracted, our present slips into the past – a precious, finite currency that we can never recover.

In the social context, that translates into: Be in the present with the person you’re with, right now. And in the millennial context, achieving that state has been made all the more difficult by the handphone. After all, how do you connect with the person you’re with when you’re literally having a conversation with someone else at the same time on a device?

But, as in every polarising subject, there’s a more nuanced view.

(Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)

Clinical psychologist Tiny Pinkerton, for instance, said the bigger issue underlying phubbing may be about more than just not being in the moment. It could be that when people phub, they’re actually “failing to address the lack of respectful behaviour towards each other, and then getting resentful about it later and blaming phubbing as responsible for ruining the relationship".

In other words, phubbing, she believed, is secondary to a deeper issue that needs addressing in the relationship, and it is “usually the fear of confrontation and its perceived consequence”.


This fear is particularly relevant in Asian communities. The familiar sight of an entire table ignoring each other in a restaurant or in the hawker centre because everyone is on their phone reflects the quality of their level of emotional expression, which, as Pinkerton pointed out, “is a cultural thing as Asians don't generally ‘do’ emotions". 


READ: Commentary: Is social media to blame for young people feeling lonelier?


And anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of avoidance behaviour – of not trying to build mutually respectful behaviour – starts right at the dining table.

Felicity Wong (not her real name) is resigned to the fact that her six-year-old son plays games on her mobile phone during dinner, to the point that he completely ignores everyone at the table. Sometimes, he even has to be manually fed by the helper while his eyes remain glued to the screen.

“It’s the only way to keep him sitting still,” she said, “and not distracting me as I tend to my one-year-old daughter.”

(Photo: Unsplash/Jacob Ufkes)

So, either way, phubbing is probably not a good sign of the way you are distracted or the structural problem of your relationship. That said, Pinkerton warned that the emotional (and social) fallout of phubbing depends on the circumstances – we should be careful about how big a deal we make of it.

“For me, personally, it really depends on how well I know the person,” she said. “If it’s an acquaintance, it would come across as highly rude, unless they acknowledge it and excuse themselves with an explanation as to why they have to interrupt our conversation. But if it’s a close friend or my child, it doesn’t really bother me as I can easily say, 'Put that phone down' and think nothing of offending them due to the unconditional positive regard or love I have for them.”

All food for thought, perhaps, the next time you’re with someone and your phone pings?

READ: Commentary: Save me, I'm a screen zombie

Source: CNA/bk