"Phubbing" is the rudest of all phone behaviour. Are you guilty of it?

Your bad phone etiquette may be killing your relationships.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Victorian writer and noted etiquette authority, Walter R. Houghton, wrote the book (actually) on proper manners in 1883. His American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness provided social protocol on matters like polite mole removal (moles, being uncouth, were burned off with silver nitrate), fending off scoundrels with expert boxing skills if you were a proper gentleman and proficiency in both archery and riding if you were a proper lady (you could drive a horseless carriage through the gender gap back then). The telephone was less than a decade old when Houghton published his rules of conduct, but note that it was customary at the time to answer with "Ahoy-hoy". Hello hadn't yet come into favour, effectively altering our fates and the careers of Lionel Richie and Adele. What Houghton would have made of current phone etiquette I know not but I'm guessing it'd be enough to drop his monocle into his soup (which you should eat with your spoon angled away from you, by the way).

Modern decorum surrounding phone use is pretty abysmal. Happily tethered to our tablets, many of us are guilty of one of the ugliest social taboos we currently visit on our fellow humans: the vulgar act of phubbing.   

Coined about 5 years ago, phubbing is an obvious mash up of phone + snubbing, and it refers to the nonverbal insult we transmit when our eyes drop and we must text or scroll through (insert most addictive app here) updates despite being in polite company. At its worst, it happens mid-conversation with dialogue halted by status-dropping silence and direct questions answered by a mute display of our scalps. Irony lovers will appreciate that the silent message sent to the people or person with us screams something along the lines of: "sorry guys, I really want to hear about your baby but I need to heart these Instagram Poke Bowls." I know, you're resisting. ""That's not fair!" you say without looking up from your phone, "I have work texts and emails to tend to". Yup, you do. And, to be fair, technological advancements of the last 15 years have introduced legitimate "phone addiction" to our lexicon along with "phubbing", it's most blatant symptom. But, addicted or productive, you're still broadcasting the message that your friend/lover/grandma isn't as important (or as interesting) as your device is in that moment. Apart from being decidedly rude, it's ruining your relationships, your health, and your posture (serious back issues from Text Neck are on the rise). In extreme cases, phubbing even tempts the grim reaper's grasp. Dishearteningly, it's also becoming the norm. Every social event we attend seems to carry that hallmark of the times - not phone related deaths, its main cause - dumbly looking down at our phones.

Most absorbed by phubbing's addictive allure? Predictably, it's young people. Few generations have taken to technology like millennials but even within that demographic, one sub group is much more prone to behavioural dependence on devices: extroverted women. Go-getter girls, take heed. Relationship expert Julie Hart suggests that phubbing could be keeping younger people single despite their best efforts. Romantic satisfaction, Hart asserts, rests soundly on three factors of intimate connection: "The first one is accessibility, that you're both open and listening to one another. The second is responsiveness, as in you both empathise and try to understand how the other feels, … and the third is engagement, so you're both making the time to be fully attentive to each other". In case you weren't reading attentively because you were trying to update your IG stories while the light was right, mindless phubbing cuts off all three connecting factors faster than you can send a broken heart emoji. And science backs Hart up.        

A recent study done at Baylor University exploring smartphone use in couples found that almost half of those surveyed reported way too much phubbing during quality time. Partners who phubbed or were phubbed upon regularly admitted to a marked dissatisfaction with their relationship and an increase in depressive feelings. The phubbing effect was most egregious for people who were already insecure about their lover's emotional investment. It's tough to get a sense of where things are going when questions like "hey, are we okay?" are answered with the swooshing sound of an email sent to someone else. Scratch that, maybe it answers the question too well.  

That we get our social media hit while waiting for the bus to roll up or the laundry to dry isn't a big deal. We all need the dopamine inducing shots of life those likes, hearts and comments on social media affords us. The truer issue is real life socializing is being traded in handily for socializing online, even while we're socializing IRL!  If putting the phone down and looking up sounds easy, mark that Hart admits a detox will be as backbreaking as Text Neck. Addiction has a way of getting normalized as it sneaks into our day-to-day, especially when everyone is similarly afflicted. It's like smoking in the 50s — it was just what people (1 in 4) did.  "The line between addiction and non-addiction can be quite blurred because it's a graduated thing" says Hart. "According to studies in US and UK, on average we check our phones every four to six minutes of our waking hours … that's over 150 times a day." The numbers are Snapchat worthy (go ahead, I'll wait), but as a moderate in these matters, I say embrace the vice. When sitting alone, in a non-lethal environment (ie not walking, driving, or riding anything) I say go absolutely bananas on your phone and chase that social media dragon.

But if you're with friends, a lover, or grangran, hit airplane mode and leave the phone in your pocket. At least until you can slink off to the bathroom and binge like a civilized person. Should granny, your best bud or your one true love callously phub you, by all means clear your throat and say in as snarky a tone as you can muster, "Uhm, ahoy-hoy!?"  


Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMe