Being a life-long learner, a ritual I love opening my day with is reading the Merriam-Webster email with the day’s word. Sometimes it is one with which I am familiar, but often it is a word whose definition I have forgotten or am unacquainted with. Merriam-Webster is not my only source for expanding my vocabulary. I learn new words while reading books, essays and even op-ed columns.
I was introduced to one in an article about the escalation of teen loneliness and its correlation to the smartphone: phubbing. It is a portmanteau, a word formed by combining elements of two different words, like smog or brunch. In this case, the words combined are phone and snubbing.
Phubbing is the act of ignoring others by focusing your gaze on your smartphone. While adults are becoming more practiced in the art, teens have perfected it, much to their social and psychological development detriment. It has a precursor that evolved with the invention of the elevator. The uncomfortable quiet we experience on a ride between floors is understandable given the confined space. But it tells us something about our nature: We have an innate need and even compulsion to communicate with others, and when we enter a complex in which the normal rules of chitchat are not applicable, we become uncomfortable. Ignoring people in close quarters feels unnatural. The saving grace for elevator passengers is that uncomfortable silence generally ends relatively quickly.
Phubbing moves the concept of elevator discomfort to a stratospheric level. It is in a league of its own and has disturbing implications for the loneliness pandemic, which can lead to antisocial behavior among the young and the old alike. Because among our survival needs, human companionship and communication is as vital as food, clothing and shelter.
In his play “The Devil’s Disciple,” the playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: That’s the essence of inhumanity.” Note Shaw’s use of negative expression with the words indifference and inhumanity and how they correlate. Flip the words to positive expression: acknowledging others is humane. So when you’re strolling down the street or through a store with your phone plugged into your ear and you are chatting away, you are evincing a callous indifference to everyone around you.
Feeling you’re being treated indifferently can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and lead to worse: depression, suicide and antisocial behavior.
Phubbing sows the seeds of antisocial behavior at an early age. During the teen years, young people transition from childhood dependency to adulthood self-reliance. This time is so critical that since the days when we roamed the African savanna and hunkered in caves, cultures have developed rituals to help move the young through their coming-of-age years. They have done so to help their soon-to-be men and women become effective members of the community. Unfortunately, over the past few millennia, such rituals have pretty much become the domain of religions (e.g., confirmation in Catholicism and Bar and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism) and educational institutions with their proms and graduation ceremonies.
I’m not sure, however, if phubbing completely captures what is happening. Snubbing is an intentional act of disrespect. Showing deliberate disdain for another might be happening in certain phubbing cases, but the reason many—especially teens and young adults—bury theirnoses in their phones is insecurity and poor social skills. When that is the case, it would be better to consider phubbing a symptom rather than a disease.
A key purpose of providing positive coming-of-age experiences for pre-adults is to foster healthy interpersonal relationship development. It is essential to their wellbeing. One of the ironies of teaching tweens and teens is that while the incessant chatter could drive a teacher batty, it is an indicator of healthy growth, assuming the chatter is appropriate and task oriented when the lesson is underway. Phubbing short-circuits that process, which means the mental health of the individual is compromised. And that impacts their ability to function effectively in their personal lives.
Phubbing, when practiced by tweens and teens, has major implications for their future professional and civic roles. And that in turn has immense ramifications for our entire society. Growing societal fissures are threatening our democratic processes. If they continue to widen, we will be in danger of becoming socially and thus politically dysfunctional. And if that happens, we can kiss off the American experiment.
We have survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Cold War, social upheavals and many other crises. And we are confronted with other existential crises, the perfidious threat to our democracyand climate change being at the forefront. But I wonder if phubbing might be the most insidious and potentially destructive crisis of all, one that no miracle vaccine or social program would be able to halt. The reason is a successful democracy is totally dependent on a healthy, respectful exchange of ideas among an informed,fact-based citizenry. And phubbing helps sabotage that. For as George Bernard Shaw points out, hate is bad enough, but callous indifference to others is quite another.
Jerry Fabyanic is the author of “Sisyphus Wins” and “Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit.” He lives in Georgetown.