To Phub or not to Phub

I just can’t keep up with all this stuff! It seems like every time I read the news -even on trusted websites like the BBC, or our own CBC- somebody has come up with a catchy new term that I’ve never heard before. A new portmanteau (I had to look that one up, too).

Sure, smog has become a common descriptive, and everybody knows what brunch implies; at some point though, the melding of words, or clothing them in novel outfits, is no longer clever. Just cutesy. Contrived. So I’ve stopped rolling my eyes at most of them -it’s simply not worth the exercise- and I confess that if I think I’m going to be forced to ingest one of them that an author has hidden on her plate, I don’t even partake of the meal.

Of course, curiosity is an itch, and so, depending on my mood, I will sometimes scratch on impulse. I have to be really bored, or morbidly intrigued by a hitherto unnamed phenomenon to approach, but I suppose we all have our weaknesses. Our peccadillos. Mine is words.

I found myself terminally ennuied one day, and while perusing one of CBC’s Second Opinion pieces, came across a silly little article entitled Phubbing is the new snubbing. The caption was so inane, so completely vacuous, I bit. At first I wondered whether I had been captured by clickbait (Why am I starting to use these words…?) but I soon realized that someone had felt the subject was worthy of an academic paper: and looked at it online.

Admittedly, I am neither au fait with current psychological literature, nor have a particular academic interest in the field, but I was curious why somebody felt that it was a topic that needed investigation. Phubbing, I gather, is a banal amalgam of ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’, and the word is supposed to convey the resentment of a conversation you are having being ignored in favour of a mobile phone.

Perhaps my age is speaking, but it strikes me that it is simply a rude behaviour -like eating with your fingers, or interrupting someone while they’re speaking -none of which practices demand other than an ostentatious eye-roll, or at worst, a reprimand. But, then again, I am not privy to the demands of scholarship, so I wish to tread lightly. Perhaps, with all the exigencies of the digital age, and the increasing weight of social media expectations, there is ample justification for the conclusion of the paper: ‘To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to consider both the antecedents and consequences of phubbing behavior. It is also the first to consider how phubbing may have become such a pervasive norm in modern communication. A significant portion of the world’s population use smartphones to conduct their everyday lives. Many people simply cannot live without them. It is therefore increasingly important for social scientists to consider the impact that they have on the quality of social life.’ Uhmm…

And yet, long before I became aware that it had its own name, I, too, was exposed to the vagaries and vicissitudes of a phone snub. I have to say, though, that, far from feeling ostracized as one of the authors of the study described, I felt strangely liberated.

I was sitting on a bus one afternoon, exhausted after a hectic day of walking around Stanley Park’s seawall with a friend. My phone was tucked away in an inside pocket of my jacket, but turned down low so I wouldn’t hear it if it rang; I was tired of talking.

As luck would have it, however, the bus was almost full and I had to share a seat with a rather chat-filled woman. Short, dark-haired, bespectacled, and dressed in a maroon pant suit like Angela Merkel, she was unable to concentrate on anything outside her window, but kept glancing at me as if she was desperate to unload some words somewhere, and I was as good a receptacle as she was going to get. Finally, she could hold it no longer.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she said, her eyes glittering with anticipation for my reply.

I smiled, and nodded pleasantly, hoping to have diffused her curiosity about the day.

“I just love this part of the trip, don’t you?” she added, when it became evident that I agreed with her assessment of the merits of the day.

I broadened my smile and glanced out the window to indicate that it was indeed lovely. Suddenly a faint ringing sound escaped from my partially unfastened jacket.

“Oh, you’ve got a call…” she said in an envious voice.

My smile was already maximally broadened, so I tried raising my eyebrows as well. There’s only so much a face can do if it doesn’t want to talk.

It rang a few more times but I made no attempt to answer it. The sound was minimal, and nobody turned towards me to wonder why I was leaving it fallow. It bothered no one -except her.

“You can go ahead and answer it, if you want,” she finally said, clearly exasperated at my reluctance.

“They’ll leave a voice message if it’s important,” I explained in a matter-of-fact voice.

Fortunately the ringing stopped as if on cue, and I was able to blink at her, certain I had been amply validated. I did not wink -I didn’t want her to think I was creepy or anything.

“I always answer,” she said after the blink. “Of course, I don’t get many calls, but when I do, I make a point of answering…” she continued, as if it were ethically incumbent upon her to clarify her position.

At that point, my phone rang again, and I had to sigh. I already felt like a verbal spittoon, and wondered if I was going to have to withstand her eyes once more. I let it ring several times, but I could see that she was getting more and more agitated. On the fifth ring, with her eyes now saucers, and her face as tense as a cougar about to pounce, I decided to put her out of her misery and reached for my pocket.

But just as my fingers closed around the phone, hers rattled with an absolutely egregious Cuban salsa tempo -percussion, horn and guitar all competing for dominance- and she scrabbled about greedily in her purse to rush it to her ear, to caress it with her lips. And just like that, I was no more. She might have been sitting by herself in a phone booth somewhere, and for the next ten minutes until I pulled the wire for my stop, she was in another world. A largely verbal world, punctuated by only the briefest hints that the caller had a voice. Words spilled into the phone like an opened tap, offered freely to all and sundry who cared to drink.

Me? I just closed my eyes politely and pretended I was deaf until my stop approached. And when I stood up to leave, she smiled -although whether to me, or the brief flurry of words emanating from her phone, I couldn’t tell.

I’m not sure if I was phubbed, or not, but I was just as happy the words were going in the other direction. Sometimes it’s okay to be snubbed for a phone. And besides, she did smile, eh?


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