Mobiles have rung up a generation of ‘phubbers’

When you get a busy signal...from the person who is sitting next to you

Have you ever been out with a friend when, mid-conversation, he starts fiddling with his mobile phone, replying to a text message or checking his e-mails? If so, congratulations: you’ve been phubbed.

Phubbing – defined as the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention – is the latest modern-day etiquette faux pas. The Stop Phubbing campaign was started in Australia by 23-year-old Australian graduate student Alex Haigh and has quickly spread to America and Britain.

So-called “phubbing” is the latest nail in the coffin of the art of conversation. Picture: Stop Phubbing campaignSo-called “phubbing” is the latest nail in the coffin of the art of conversation. Picture: Stop Phubbing campaign

Though the movement’s website is embellished with tongue-in-cheek statements, such as “92 per cent of repeat phubbers go on to be politicians”, Haigh’s message highlights the supreme annoyance of glazed faces in public settings and text-tapping fingers during supposedly intimate dinners.

Phubbing: the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention

Image and etiquette consultant Tanya Borg Cardona highlights a Maltese trait which makes phubbing even more of a scourge.

“We Maltese have the habit of speaking in really loud voices. When people answer their phones in places such as restaurants, it disturbs other patrons. Restaurants should ask such people to carry on with their conversation outside.”

Phubbing, she notes, is indicative of a generation of youths who are always on the phone and yet have no clue on how to socially interact. The excuse of multitasking is a myth.

“When you’re tapping away at your phone you’re thinking and therefore using your mental faculties. You won’t be able to give the other person your full attention.

“Families are so pushed for time nowadays that it’s even worse when the little precious time a family can spend together is stolen by phubbing.

“It’s better to give children 30 minutes of your undivided attention than to spend three hours in their company flicking through your phone.”

Yet, perhaps the worst thing of all is that many phubbers don’t even realise that their actions are rude.

“Generally, if your phone warrants more attention than the person beside you, then you’re in the wrong place.”

Self-confessed phubber Toni Attard admits to finding the lure of a bleeping phone irresistible.

“I have four different e-mail accounts. Whenever my phone vibrates, it automatically attracts my attention. Often enough, I’m not even conscious of phubbing.”

The convenience of having a smart phone means that he ends up sending more e-mails through his phone than when sitting at his computer desk.

“I don’t always manage to multitask and keep up with a conversation while phubbing. Thank God for the times when there is no reception.”

Rudeness is rampant and good manners seem to be a thing of the past

According to Joseph Giordmaina, Education Studies senior lecturer, phubbing is extremely common among both students and staff.

He believes that phubbing is not necessarily an act of snubbing the lecturer, but more a case of multitasking.

“Using a mobile phone has become an addiction – during lectures it is very common for students to update their status or to comment on the lecture or the lecturer.

“Notes are being taken by phone as well: no need to copy the PowerPoint presentation – just take a photo of it and share it or upload it on a Facebook page specifically dedicated to the course.”

Dr Giordmaina adds that he has seen cases where lecturers not only text but also take calls during the delivery of a lecture.

At times, he notes, phubbing is also a polite way of passing a “how boring this is” message.

“Rudeness is rampant and good manners seem to be a thing of the past. It is amazing, for instance, how most students (in my case, tomorrow’s teachers) hardly ever use the words ‘thank you’ or ‘please’, or knock on an office door before entering.

“In primary and secondary schools good manners are definitely not being given their due importance.”

According to digital media academic Alex Grech, what we now have is “institutionalised distraction. We have all the excuses in the world to ignore those whom we no longer find entertaining – including family and friends – and seek refuge in the content of unknown others in the screens we carry with us.”

In the early days of Internet culture, a lot of media attention was devoted to ‘netiquette’, ‘flaming’, and other new ‘social ills’.

Citizens were supposed to quickly learn how to adjust to a new way of communicating and behaving online.

“If you were to take the current local discourse on online bullying and harassment as an indicator, you can safely conclude that in Malta most citizens have yet to navigate through the basics of how to express themselves over the social media,” Dr Grech says.

In 1985, Dr Grech added, the academic Neil Postman famously wrote that by watching TV we were “amusing ourselves to death.”

Nowadays, the social distractions encountered with TV in a living room have multiplied exponentially because of the seduction of our mobile devices.

Not only are there more demands on our attention when we are “consuming information” and interacting with others – but we also have the means to communicate horizontally and create content ourselves.

“We’re a long way off from the days of SMS and smileys.  Phubbing is a silly term, but there are plenty of indicators that we’re well on the way to putting more value in the quality of apps and the entertainment they provide, than the quality of the real-life conversations we could have with people around us.

“It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  The only way that is going to happen is if we start to take digital literacies seriously – in the home, in the classroom and in the boardroom.

“Sadly, we’re all too busy fiddling with our devices before we start to understand how to use them mindfully.”


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