In 2012, a lexicologist, a phonetician, a poet, a debating champion, a crossword maker, and several authors gathered at Sydney University in Australia. Their mission? To create a new word to describe “the practice of ignoring the person you’re with in favor of your smartphone.”
The word they coined, phubbing, has been used in the media and in a few scientific studies, but hasn’t caught on in everyday conversation. Maybe that’s because the new term—a combination of phone and snubbing—sounds a little silly. On the other hand, maybe we just don’t want to acknowledge the problem at all. After all, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we are as much perpetrators of this rude habit as we are its victims.
By whatever name, however, there’s little doubt that this habit is making our lives worse. Research demonstrates that phubbing is associated with unsatisfying conversations, poor relationships, and lower levels of happiness. This is also evidence that phubbing is taking a toll on our marriages, our work, and our mental health.
Truth be told, we don’t need researchers to tell us how rotten phubbing is. We’ve all had the experience of being ignored by a friend, coworker, or loved one in favor of the magic glowing rectangle and we don’t need anyone to tell us that it feels bad. We also know, intuitively, that doing this to other people is rude and disrespectful.
We seem to be hardwired with a sense of reciprocity, which Kongzi called the “single principle which can guide all our actions” (Analects, 15.24). This teaching is not, of course, exclusive to Ruism. Some version of the so-called Golden Rule can be found in ancient Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, and Rome as well as in the scriptures of the world’s major religions. It is as close to a universal human ethical principle as we’re likely to find.
Unfortunately, knowing isn’t doing. We all fail, at times, to treat others as we wish to be treated. Knowing that phubbing is wrong doesn’t prevent us from doing it. And, if the statistics are to be believed, we do it very frequently.
Perhaps one of the reasons we fail so often in this area is that respectful smartphone use has not yet been incorporated into our li. Li, which is often translated as ritual, is a very broad concept in Ruism, embracing what we would call formal ceremonies, manners, civility, and etiquette.
Ideally, li is carried out intentionally and mindfully—an outward expression of our internal disposition to see others as worthy of respect and care. Very often, of course, li is not carried out in this ideal fashion. Even then, however, the “autopilot” version of li ensures that society runs a little smoother.
When you’re at the grocery store or the bank, for example, you get in line without giving the matter any conscious thought. You probably aren’t thinking to yourself, “Everyone in front of me got here first and I owe them respect, so I’ll wait my turn.” The beauty of “autopilot” li is that it usually ensures proper social behavior even when we aren’t consciously thinking about it, a point made brilliantly by the philosopher Amy Olberding in her book, The Wrong of Rudeness.
The problem with smartphones, then, is that the technology changed too quickly for our li to catch up to it. What’s worse is that that the smartphone will probably be usurped by some other form of personal technology before it does. If we wait for societal norms to catch up to the blazing speed of technology, we will most likely spend our lives treating each other poorly in this area.
The only option open to the Ru, then, is to develop personal technology habits that demonstrate respect and care for other people. We should strive to make it our practice to silence and put away our phones when in the presence of others who deserve our attention. We won’t have “autopilot” li to fall back on, so we’ll have to practice mindful, attentive li until the habit becomes second nature.