Phubbing may be a silly word, but it’s a very real problem many of us have experienced.
In basic terms, phubbing is when someone ignores the live human(s) in front of them to instead pay attention to their phone (or other mobile device).
Phubbing can happen intermittently, (like when someone periodically checks their messages during a face-to-face conversation) or in longer stretches, (like when someone scrolls their phone continuously while you’re talking, or even abandons an in-person exchange to go look at something on-line.)
If that’s you, then this post will give you some effective and empowering ways to make it stop.
You’re not wrong. It’s rude.
First, know that when you have a negative reaction to being phubbed, it’s not because you are overly-sensitive. “Phub” comes from the word “snub” (“Phone” + “Snub” = “Phub”). Being phubbed very much feels like being snubbed, and that’s usually a bad feeling.
Also know that in some circles phubbing is quietly tolerated and even socially acceptable. That doesn’t mean you’re a weirdo for not liking how it feels. Even if everyone around you appears to be O.K. with phubbing, you’re still allowed to say, “No thanks. Please don’t do that to me.”
But how exactly do you pull that off?
Below are four suggestions. Word of warning: none of them are easy. That’s because easy (often passive aggressive) moves like just sighing dramatically or leaving the room, don’t work. To actually make a change, you’re going to need to be more proactive…
1. Check your own behavior
Sometimes the reason we get phubbed is because we’ve phubbed others, now or in the past. In doing so, we inadvertently taught the people around us that we’re cool with this behavior.
So, before you attempt to change the rules of engagement, make sure you’re not inclined to break those rules too. Put your phone away before you start a conversation and/or avoid surreptitiously checking it on the sly.
Also, be sure to face the other person and give them your full attention with eye contact during conversations. This will often result in them mirroring you and doing the same.
2. Name the problem
It’s likely the phubber not only doesn’t know they’re phubbing you, they don’t know how to fix it. You may have to give them that information.
For example, you could say, “I’d prefer to have your full attention while we talk. Can you take a break from your phone for a little bit?” or “You seem really into your phone right now. Can I have some time to talk with you in an hour?”
This type of response lets the phubber know…
- They’re engaged in behavior you don’t like or find conducive for conversation.
- You’re not interested in continuing until the behavior has stopped.
- When it stops, you’d be happy to resume the interaction.
If the phubber replies, “Whoops! Sorry about that! We can talk now,” puts down their phone, but then peeks at it again, (or you double back an hour later and immediately get phubbed again) just keep repeating some version of that same sentence. It might take a few rounds before the phubber understands the point you’re trying to make.
3. Share your feelings
Another option is to say to the phubber, “You know, when you look down at your phone while I’m talking to you, it makes me feel like you’re not really listening to me and that makes me feel sad. Could you take a break from it for a little while?”
Did you just cringe when you read that? If so, you’re not alone. Sharing your feelings and asking for what you need can be hard, but it’s also the best way to get those needs met.
When you choose this option, you are explicitly explaining…
- That they’re engaged in a behavior that bothers you.
- Why this behavior bothers you.
- How this behavior makes you feel.
- What you’d like them to do instead.
If they choose to keep phubbing you after you’ve presented this explanation then you know it’s because their phone continues to be more immediately compelling and important to them than your needs.
Yes, that’s a sad realization to have, but it’s also ultimately their issue to deal with, not yours. Your issue is deciding what you’re going to do about it. (Try again? Get your need met elsewhere?)
4. Draw some boundaries
Lastly, it may help to establish “phone down” times (e.g. mealtime) or zones (e.g. no phones in bedroom) in your life or home. These sorts of artificial boundaries can help do some of the hard work of policing phubbing for you.
For instance, my family has agreed to not use phones during dinner. (So you can imagine my pride/embarrassment when a visiting relative picked up hers years ago and my then-kindergartener loudly proclaimed, “Family rule is NO PHONES at the table!”)
Your enforcement doesn’t have to be quite so bold.
Simply present the boundary and then ask for buy-in from the other parties like, “You know, I’d love it if we could not check our phones during this lunch and really spend the time catching up. Is that O.K. with you?” Or, “It’s Thanksgiving and I’d really like it if we didn’t have devices on the table during this special meal. What does everyone think about that?”
Again, be sure to honor the boundary yourself. If someone still phubs you in spite of the boundary, recognize you have the option to respond using one of the options above or choose to ignore it.
Remember, you can’t make someone change a habit, but you can control your exposure to it and how you respond, in turn. You can’t stop someone from phubbing, but you can stop being phubbed.