You’re sitting outdoors at a bar. Your friend points out how your face is perfectly illuminated by the setting sun, and they whip out their phone to capture the moment.
But before they’ve even unlocked it, they’re met with a message from their partner and a DM from another friend. There are some emails too, and they’ve got a missed call from their mom. "Sorry, one sec," they murmur as their eyes lower magnetically to their phone.
Maybe you feel low-key pissed off; maybe you feel let down, because you were about to tell them something important. Either way, you don’t ask them to put their phone away. You don’t say anything at all.
What is phubbing?
The word phubbing — snubbing someone in your company in favor of your phone — has been around since 2012, when McCann, an advertising agency, coined the term. Phubbing is undoubtedly rude; but it’s not surprising, given the role of phones in our lives.
“The design of apps, with constant notifications, can make it challenging for us to resist picking up our phones,” Catherine Talbot, PhD, cyberpsychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at Bournemouth University, tells Refinery29. “Also, people may not even realize they're phubbing, as spending time on their phone has become habitual.”
Phubbing is everywhere, and — shocker — it’s having a detrimental effect; a recent Turkish study found that phubbing can have a negative impact on long-term romantic relationships. No surprises there.
Why do we find it difficult to call someone out for phubbing?
But what is bizarre is how few of us call it out when it happens to us. In a New York Times article, psychologist Anthony Chambers said he "frequently works with couples where phubbing behaviors have been left to simmer until they become a bigger problem." I can see how; I loathe being phubbed — it makes me feel simultaneously irritated and unimportant — but the idea of asking anyone (except possibly my immediate family) to please put their phone away makes me squirm.
My hesitation around calling others out for phubbing probably has its roots in the fear of being a hypocrite. As Talbot says: “Many people pick up their phones with good intentions, but it's easy to get distracted by notifications and other apps.” I’m often guilty of getting my phone out to take a photo of my boyfriend or show my friend something they’d find interesting; only to get instantly distracted by an array of notifications and lose myself in my screen.
Phoebe, 27, heartily dislikes phubbing — “I really don’t like when others are on their phone non-stop when we’re together,” she tells Refinery29 — but, like me, she finds it “really difficult” to ask people to stop.
“I feel like I don’t really have a leg to stand on,” Phoebe admits. “I’m guilty of phubbing, much more than I’d like. I run my own business online and work remotely across time zones, so often I need to respond to something urgent when it’s 9 p.m. and I’m at dinner with friends. I’ll then open another app to check notifications and get caught up until I realize what I’m doing... I’d never be able to say to a friend that it really bothers me that they’re on their phone non-stop when we’re together, because I do the same."
“There are many reasons why someone might find it difficult to call out phubbing,” says Dr. Talbot. “People may fear confrontation, they may assume the person is doing something important, or they [may] be hesitant to confront it due to phubbing being seen as socially acceptable.”
This all makes sense. Paula Cocozza, author and journalist at The Guardian, agrees that calling people out for phubbing is really hard. Her 2023 novel, Speak to Me, centers around 50-year-old protagonist Susan, whose husband Kurt is unable to draw his eyes or attention away from his phone.
“It’s not like stepping into a conversation,” Cocozza tells Refinery29. “The person with the phone is engaged in a whole other private activity in your shared space, and you have no idea when it’s a good or bad moment to speak to them, or even if [it’s] okay to speak at all.”
Is it okay to ask someone to put their phone away?
“Nobody wants to be labelled as the difficult one or the moany one, and this might get in the way of pointing out someone else’s phubbing habit,” agrees Georgina Sturmer, MBACP, an online counselor based in the U.K. “This could be even more difficult if you have people-pleasing tendencies, or if you worry about being disliked or causing embarrassment.”
Then there’s the worry that someone might be phubbing because they’re doing something important, which can tap into feelings of inadequacy, too. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t respond to that super urgent work email so I can tell them about my day? “Do you feel worthy of someone else’s full attention?” asks Sturmer. “If you’re lacking in confidence, then it might be difficult for you to assert yourself with someone else.”
Really, though, I think what it largely comes down to is Dr. Talbot’s third theory — that of phubbing being seen as socially acceptable. Because asking someone not to phub, in 2023, feels like a naive, antiquated ask; and — while it really shouldn’t — it feels weirdly uncool. In Speak to Me, the character Susan muses: "He is always the latest him, whilst I remain the same old me. I’m like a figure from a historical novel." Who wants to feel out-of-date?
Except it’s not antiquated to ask for somebody’s full attention when you’re giving them yours, or to prioritize face-to-face connection. Nor is it self-absorbed to ask someone to reply to that email after you’ve finished your conversation; nor should we worry about pissing someone off by asking them not to be rude.
As for hypocrisy; well, of course it’s hypocritical to ask someone to stop phubbing if you phub yourself. But the fact that you sometimes do it too doesn’t automatically make the other person’s phubbing okay. “Any time I’ve said something jokingly, the reply tends to be along the lines of, ‘You do it too’ — which is totally true,” says Phoebe. “I don’t really have an answer to that, but it’s clearly a lesson that we all need to get better at putting our phones down when we’re together.”
And if you simultaneously hate phubbing and sometimes phub others yourself, don’t beat yourself up. I asked Cocozza if Susan could be described as a hypocrite for her own (later) phone usage: “I don’t want to call her a hypocrite, because that feels really judgmental,” she replied. “I think she has a complex and evolving relationship with technology, and it’s reasonable for her to feel sidelined by her partner’s use of it, while enjoying and exploring her own uses.” Whether you’re 50 or 20, technology is complicated. Our behaviors around it and responses to it are likely to be complicated, too.
Obviously, phones can be brilliant and phubbing can be totally justified — if you’re checking for news of a sick relative, for example, or if there is a (genuine) work crisis. But assuming the reason for someone’s phubbing isn’t urgent and you’re feeling lonely or ignored, the key to making your feelings known without either feeling hypocritical or making the other person feel bad (phones are designed to be addictive, there’s no point casting blame around) is to be the change you’d like to see.
“[It’s] important for us to role model the behavior that we want to see in other people,” says Sturmer. “If you want other people to put their phones away, consider leading by example [and] put your [own] phone away. Highlight the positives rather than the criticism,” she continues. “Rather than moaning about other people who are always on [their phones], talk about how much you’re enjoying having a break from technology.”
In her book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, science journalist Catherine Price has another suggestion. "If you’re out, you can keep your own phone off the table and then make a point of asking your dining companion for permission before you check it," she writes. "This is your opportunity to explain that the reason you are asking for permission is that you are trying not to phub people."
And, if you want to be a little more explicit: “People may find it helpful to establish clear boundaries about phone use in certain settings, such as when spending quality time with family members,” posits Dr. Talbot.
Ultimately, calling out phubbing is tough. The words "Can you please put your phone away?" will likely never leave my mouth. But there are actions you can take to bring about the (slightly more) phub-free reality you’d like to live in — and that reality is worth striving for. As Catherine Price writes: "Phones should add to, not subtract from, your interactions." The math does itself.