How to stop ‘phubbing’ and be more present

A portmanteau of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’, phubbing has been trending in our lives as we willfully continue to let smartphones be the disruptor of relationships even as we complain how technology has made us disconnected



by

Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 22 Jul 2022, 9:01 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Jul 2022, 9:02 PM

One evening, as I sat across the table from a friend, I noticed (more than usual, that is) she was checking her phone from time to time (notifications were muted but there were the optics of blinks each time something popped up). This was on a weekend, and she had just been telling me how she has decided to not even look at work mails or messages on her “off days”. She was probably checking out social media or some messaging apps (I didn’t dare ask). She was also smiling while looking at her phone, whereas she looked rather glum while talking to me.

So, my first reaction was: am I so boring now that people are finding it onerous to sustain five minutes of talk time with me? And, would they prefer checking out a new status message than according me the status of a conversationalist?

Later, when I discussed the matter with someone else, he said, “Oh, you poor thing, you’ve been phubbed — but then, you do the same thing. The phubber has been phubbed, just deserts I say!”

That’s when I first heard of ‘phubbing’. Rather late in the day — the term was first coined in May 2012, when, according to healthline.com, “An Australian advertising agency created this word to describe the growing phenomenon of people ignoring their friends and family who were right in front of them and instead scrolling through their phones.”

On Solitaired.com, my go-to zone for playing Phrazle, there was a survey conducted of 1,000-plus Americans, asking them if they have been phubbed. The numbers were startling: 98 per cent replied in the affirmative. According to an article on digitalinformationworld.com, that reported on this survey, “28 per cent claimed to have been phubbed by their significant others and 47 per cent stated that their significant others do this almost every day.” Significant others were followed by best friends, followed by mom, brothers, sisters, child — and the most least likely to phub you on the list was your dad followed by your boss. “The most visited site while phubbing according to the survey was TikTok, followed by Instagram, Reddit, Twitter and, lastly, Facebook.”

Today, phubbing is a ubiquitous phenomenon, we do it anywhere, anytime and often without apology, says Dr Tara Wyne, clinical psychologist, Lighthouse Arabia. “People behave like they are absolutely entitled to look at their phone as though it were critically important. They may well be glancing at Instagram or a WhatsApp message, but what they are doing is immaterial, they simply feel compelled to touch base with their phone no matter what the occasion.” The person they are with may find this rude and insensitive, but their reactions and feelings are ignored.

In Dr Tara’s work with clients, this is most often relayed by anxious parents whose children’s major relationship is with their phone — not people. Then, there are spouses who complain that despite having very little protected time together in a busy day, they find each other scrolling through Instagram or FB or starting a “quick Zoom” over dinner. “Again, this becomes almost a reflex. It causes us to miss signals and cues and bids for attention by our partner. We basically are privileging our phone over our partner. This causes a small tear between the couple each time — which isn’t acknowledged or repaired because it’s considered merely normal and instinctual now.”

Being a ‘pathological phubber’

Niranjan Gidwani, consulting director and member of UAE Superbrands Council, admits to both “being at the receiving end, and being a culprit”. “Phubbing as a phenomenon is increasing manifold, and all of us are culprits of what we are doing — at times, without even realising what we are doing.” He breaks down his being a phubber into two parts. “At the work end, I have probably been a bit more organised… if there is an important one-on-one meeting, I try and ensure my phone is mostly stashed away, so I can pay attention to what is being said. And whenever I led meetings with teams, I established a system where we put phones off and kept them on one table, and looked at them only during breaks.”

But at home, or when Niranjan is with friends, “because the relationships are closer, I take more liberties, get a little more slack”. What bothers him on this front is that it’s not always that he’s checking out important messages — “I look at the silly stuff too”. He’s now making a conscious effort to curtail this tendency to phub, but, of course, it’s easier said than done!

It’s impossible to hear a loved one say that you were not present or available to engage with them and not be affected by it, says entrepreneur and influencer Myriam Keramane. It makes her feel guilty, because “if I’m honest, I am a pathological phubber… We all want to be active participants in the lives of those we care about — apart from being a businesswoman, I’m a mother, a friend, a daughter, and each of these roles is incredibly important to me — but I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle to put my phone down.”

The impact of our phone usage sneaks up on us because we still fool ourselves that our phone usage is functional and necessary rather than elective and voluntary, is how Dr Tara sums up our tendency to phub on reflex. Phubbing becoming so universal makes us less attuned and careful of each other’s feelings and needs. “It’s becoming ordinary and commonplace that our phone behaviour causes relational harm to others which we ignore or minimise. Essentially, over time, this phenomenon is causing more neglect, inattention, and feelings of abandonment within relationships.”

Phubbing at the workplace

We all have phones that ding like crazy with new mail and text notifications and we all want to multitask to clear these messages, points out Mary Grothe, founder and CEO of House of Revenue, an American firm that specialises in strategic revenue growth within the corporate sector. “However, it’s gotten to the point where people are multitasking on their phones while also having in-person meetings. While this is a highly prevalent behaviour, it doesn’t make it right. The consequences are loss of proper etiquette and sending the wrong message that using or answering our phones is more important than the person in front of us.”

Rohan Siroya, CEO, Evermore by Siroya ALTR, admits that mobile devices are perhaps the most significant differentiator in how his company works: “being in an industry focused on customer service and sales, we are constantly on our phones”. But “I have seen workflow breaking down, and it has been straight up insulting to the person leading the meeting when a phone interruption comes into play.”

Myriam while playfully referring to herself as a “serial offender”, acknowledges how disrespectful it must seem to be distracted by a phone in a professional setting. “The consequences of phubbing in the workplace are a loss of respect, integrity, and a drop in customer experience. That’s devastating. I would be horrified if a client or associate ever felt snubbed in my business… I think we need to set business boundaries to support our clients and staff. Some organisations might benefit by instilling a zero-devices policy when on active duty.”

If your boss insists on being on their phone while you’re speaking, they might be feeling overwhelmed and trying to multitask, says Melissa Whitehead, branding and PR

professional, Prestidge Group. “But this can lead to them potentially giving you half-hearted answers and doesn’t provide space to discuss all possible scenarios or brainstorm more ideas.”

Over his tenure as a top management honcho, Niranjan noted that many colleagues — at times, senior managers — used to be busy checking out messages and social media notifications during the course of important meetings. “At times, I would find that colleagues [who are connected on Facebook or Instagram with me] had posted a comment while a critical meeting had been underway,” he laughs, but actually it’s no laughing matter. Niranjan refers to his earlier statement about setting up a system where phones needed to kept aside during meetings — “but there were some who would still want to keep their phones with them, saying they were expecting an important call or an urgent work mail.” Sometimes the organisation you are working for “is investing huge amounts of money into training programmes or workshops”, so it’s sad that some people still insist on being on their phones and basically indulge in corporate phubbing.

How to stop phubbing and start engaging

Melissa says she knows people who are addicted to their phone and HAVE to check it every single time it beeps, or that notification light flashes. “But, personally, I prefer and enjoy interactions where everyone is present physically. I’m attentive to my phone for work and do my best to keep an eye on it after hours, but, in my personal time, I like to forget that I even have a phone! If someone is trying to have a conversation with you and you are on your phone, not really paying attention, this can damage your relationship and even make the other person feel excluded and unimportant or unheard, which can actually affect their mental and emotional health.”

For her part, Mary sets aside specific times of the day when she allows herself to check her social media accounts and

“I try to stick to those schedules.” Community-building is important but it doesn’t always have to be done on a phone. “It’s extremely important for me to focus my energy on spending quality time with my family and loved ones.” If anything, Mary’s FOMO stems more from missing out on what “fun things my family will do without me — not what’s on social media. The physical connections and conversations are what truly count”.

It’s easy to let our minds wander to our to-do lists or to the growing emails in our inbox than the person right in front of us. “And it’s so tempting to look down at our phones to check a notification or missed call. Now, more than ever, we need to be conscious of our body language, put our phones face down, and make eye contact, to show that we are truly present and focused.”

At times, you can pace yourself to be more ‘strategic’ in your interaction. As Melissa says, “At the workplace, for instance, you can simply pop in to your boss’s chamber and ask if they have a second before you proceed to discuss the matter at hand. They will either stop checking their phone and give you the time needed to address the matter, or they will ask you to come back in a few minutes when they can focus on what you’re saying… I think it’s just about both parties being courteous of each other’s time but also understanding that they rely on each other to get work done.”

Again, at the workplace, there can be stringent rules. “For instance, in our meetings, it’s critical phones are on silent mode and not seen on the table,” says Rohit. “It isn’t enough to have them turned face down, they need to be out of sight.”

Being off your phone for regular periods of the day means being present to yourself and being practically and emotionally available to others in your life, explains Dr Tara. But it’s important we acknowledge and recognise our relationship with our phones before we make “healthy changes”. “If we don’t see the problem, we will continue to be preoccupied and obsessed… We need to consciously have parts of our life where the phone isn’t our tool or crutch — and our relationship with our phone, like anything else in our lives, has to be conscious and deliberate. We have to draw clear boundaries where the phone shouldn’t enter. No phones at dinner, or during quality time, or outdoor activities with people.”

As Niranjan says, phones may have become an extension of our bodies, but it’s only a gadget at the end of the day, while Myriam chips in with, “I would hate to offend a client… but even more importantly, I would hate to leave a loved one feeling neglected.”


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