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10172015_Licorish_Phubbing iStock/for PhillyVoice

"Phubbing"

October 20, 2015

The 'phubbing' conundrum: How your smartphone habits could break - or make - your relationship

Whether cultural phenomena are real or feigned, it’s nice to put a name to things.

If you’re like me, you breathed a sigh of relief when someone finally christened “Resting Bitch Face.” Only then could womankind initiate a dialogue about the condition’s roots and implications, its myths and misconceptions. Armed with our long-awaited layman's diagnosis, we deconstructed our furrowed brows and downturned lips for exactly what they signify: nothing, nothing at all. Ladies with RBF aren’t bitter or contentious; they’re simply busy, contemplative, neutral.

With common lingo comes mutual understanding. Crisis averted.

Not so in the wake of pop culture’s latest portmanteau, “phubbing,” derived from “phone” + “snubbing,” to describe the widespread, anti-social tick to which we’ve all been victim.

Phubbing in a nutshell: You’re engaged in what you think is riveting discussion with your significant other, your best friend, your mom, when suddenly the beneficiary of your witty banter whips out his or her phone to scroll through Facebook, answer a text, compose a tweet or Google something completely extraneous. The act is swift and reflexive, like a hiccup or a sneeze, except it is totally, inexcusably rude.

Right? Am I right? Are you listening?

We hear “correlation is not causation” over and over, so much it’s become cliché, and, yet, everyone’s very eager to throw technology under the bus for all our interpersonal problems. We blame our social networks for every social flaw and faux pas, as if people weren’t narcissistic and insecure before Facebook, vain and superficial before Tinder, hypocritical and philandering before Ashley Madison.

“Technology is making us stupid.” “Technology is making us depressed.” “Technology is making us lonely, and fat and sociopathic.” You’d think we’d cut the cord cold turkey, eschew technology all together, to save what’s left of our wretched souls, except technology has turned us into full-fledged addicts, too.

Phubbing is no more than a physical manifestation of a previously existing disconnect. Perhaps, before “phubbing,” society should have coined a few other precursory portmanteaus. 

“Phubbing” achieved Internet notoriety last week, on the heels of a study authored by James A. Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, and published in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior.” The study establishes a correlation between high levels of perceived “phubbing" in relationships and lower levels of relationship satisfaction, plus higher rates of depression. Ensuing headlines were quick to establish causation:

"Scientists: How ‘phubbing’ (or phone snubbing) can kill your romantic relationship
Phubbing: The Latest Epidemic To Hit The US May Destroy Your Romantic Relationship And Heighten Depression
Yes, your smartphone is hurting your love life: study

Call me a total misanthrope, but I think it’s worth considering: If you think your smartphone is killing your relationship, it’s probably already dead.

Hear me out:

The way I see it, a smartphone is a distraction like any other - a brisk jog, a stiff drink, a vague daydream - a brief escape from the stress of reality, the impossibility of existing on the same wavelength as another (even your favorite) human being. It’s not just an old wives’ tale that men, especially, have short attention spans and routinely “check out” of chit-chat in the privacy of their own minds. I can personally attest that women also discreetly allow their thoughts to wander during conversational drivel, that same old “How was work today?” or “What should we eat for dinner?”

We all know our partners listen to every other point we make, at best. Yet, so long as we can delude ourselves into pretending this isn’t the case, we’re happy to laugh in the face of reality. Mid-conversational daydreaming is okay, but “phubbing” incites outrage, even though phubbing is at least, in theory, more productive than vague reverie. Instead of simply imagining what she might like to eat for dinner, while you complain about your boss for the umpteenth time this week, your partner might pull out her smartphone, peruse a menu, consult a Yelp review or two and actually place an order. At worst, phubbing merely makes the daydream explicit. At best, phubbing gets shit done.

Phubbing is no more than a physical manifestation of a previously existing disconnect. Perhaps, before “phubbing,” society should have coined a few other precursory portmanteaus. How about “mubbing” (“mind” + “snubbing”), to describe the above scenario, which dates back to the dawn of civilization? “Fubbing” (“food” + snubbing”) might refer to those times you’re more likely to get lost in dinner itself than dinnertime prattle.

Before we had smartphones to visually map out points of inattentiveness, we had to wonder when and where our communication gaps manifested themselves. Confusion only added to insult and injury. It is for this very reason alone that phubbing is more likely to do your relationship more good than harm. Phubbing highlights your partner’s limitations, as well as your own. Once it’s out in the open, either you’ll both be okay with each other’s verbal communication threshold, or you won’t.

Instead of vilifying phubbing, try viewing it as a window of opportunity to understand the person you love even better than ever before. What you discover might surprise you. It might even spark a relationship-saving conversation.

I’ve been phubbed before; I’ve done my fair share, too. I’ve learned that people phub for all kinds of complicated reasons. More often than not, how and when someone phubs can tell you a lot about who he or she is as a person, and, most importantly, whether or not that person is right for you.

Some people phub during heated exchanges because they simply don’t handle stress and anxiety well. Some people phub during philosophical debates because they’d rather talk pop culture than Plato. Others phub for more practical reasons, such as a demanding, ‘round-the-clock career. In today’s gig economy, more and more people are pursuing passion projects that are aren’t just jobs, but extensions of their personalities. How you handle the smartphone habits of a freelance artist or technology entrepreneur says a lot about your long-term compatibility with someone who’s deeply invested in his or her work.

I get it. It’s natural to feel threatened by technology. It’s bad enough that robots are stealing our jobs. What’s to stop them from poaching our love, too? It’s tempting to ascribe so much seductive, humanoid power to technology. So why not go all the way? Let’s say your partner’s smartphone is like another person. If your partner were liable to choose another person over you, would you want to stay? Would you say that relationship is headed for success or doomed for failure?

Chances are your significant other will never choose a piece of polycarbonate plastic over you. After all, you’re human. And humans are thoroughly more engaging to most other humans than artificial intelligence will likely ever be. But your significant other is human, too. How, and when, and why we “phub” says a lot about our human vulnerabilities: our preoccupations, our insecurities, our hopes and dreams, our greatest fears.

Instead of vilifying phubbing, try viewing it as a window of opportunity to understand the person you love even better than ever before. What you discover might surprise you. It might even spark a relationship-saving conversation.

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