My chest was ready to explode with rage. I was having dinner with my boyfriend, and our conversation kept getting interrupted by his text messages. Every few minutes his eyes would widen, and he would look down while I was in mid-sentence.
“Why can’t you turn off your phone,” I asked. “We’re having dinner.”
Of course, I knew the messages from “her”—an ex-girlfriend of his who didn’t like the fact that I was now dating him.
I didn’t know what was worse—her interrupting our dinner or his responding to the message. Yes, I should have taken this dinner as a clear sign that our relationship was doomed. That would come several months later.
We know that we use our smartphones for many reasons, but how often do they interrupt our interactions with others?
Researchers call this behavior “phubbing,” which is a fusion of two words—snubbing and phone. Others refer to this as “technoference,” which implies that our digital device (and other technologies) indeed can interfere with our interpersonal relationships.
Who engages in phubbing?
My students have insisted that they can pay attention to my lectures while attending to their phone. For them, using their cellphone while doing other things has become commonplace.
It’s not only college students who engage in phubbing. Researchers found that phubbing has become somewhat of a social norm.
A study in the Ohio Communication Journal found that those who are concerned with their online presence and those who are somewhat absorbed with their own lives tend to engage in phubbing. Similarly, those who are heavily engaged with Instagram or fear missing out on something will tend to check out of a conversation and into their smartphone.
Phubbers might make brief eye contact with those around them to give others the belief that they are paying attention. However, they admit that they will miss the nuances of a conversation or misunderstand the conversation altogether.
This never feels good if we’re on the receiving end of phubbing.
Why does it bother us?
In a two-way conversation, we expect the other to listen. We want to know that we are being heard by another, particularly if we are in a conflict with that person or with someone else.
We make assumptions about people when they reach for their phone in our presence. We assume the person has prioritized whoever or whatever is on the mobile device over us, and that can threaten some of our fundamental needs.
In particular, one study found that the more intensely someone phubs us, the more we feel threats to our self-esteem, our need to belong, our need to have a meaningful existence, and our need to feel control over our lives.
My own research has found that the more we engage in phubbing behavior, the less mindful and attentive we are about our immediate environment. Therefore, it is not surprising that research has found that phubbing while with a relationship partner can have a negative impact on the relationship.
The impact on relationships
One of my students said that she wasn’t bothered when she and her boyfriend would reach for their phones while on a date. In her view, just being together was enough for her, even though they were on their phones interacting with others.
While at a cafe, I watched a woman on a video call with her partner. They would talk to one another every once in a while, but they were both scrolling through their phones while their laptops were engaged in the video call.
How can these two couples be unbothered by phubbing while it pissed me off in my own relationship?
It can depend upon your need for belonging and your emotional state.
If you’re in a bad mood or if your need to belong feels threatened, these will magnify how phubbing affects how you rate the quality of communication in your relationship. If you are in a good mood, phubbing won’t affect how satisfied you feel in your relationship.
Phubbing can also affect our current mood. A recent study asked participants to keep a daily log of how often phubbing occurred in their relationship. On specific days when a people experienced phubbing, they not only reported being in a bad mood, but they also felt bad about their relationship, experienced negative interpersonal interactions, and believed technology presented a conflict.
Perhaps my student might have been in a good mood while she was with her boyfriend, so she was not bothered that he was phubbing. It also could be argued that because she was phubbing herself, her need to belong wasn’t feeling threatened.
On the other hand, I was already in a bad mood because I knew that my partner was communicating with another woman. His phubbing with her escalated my angered state.
My need to belong was also being threatened as a result of his phubbing. Therefore, we had poor communication and I was no longer satisfied with our relationship.
In sum, we can improve our relationships with others by becoming aware of our own needs and the needs of our significant other. If we are bothered by our partner using a device, we need to communicate that.
We also might pay a little more attention to the person we’re with rather than the person on the other end of our phone.
This post was previously published on Thrive Global and Medium.