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Are You 'Phubbing' Folks at Work?

If you do decide to focus your attention elsewhere, explicitly communicate why.

Key points

  • Phubbing refers to snubbing by paying attention to an electronic device while interacting with another.
  • Being unaware of the negative impact of our phubbing but keenly aware of the effects when we are phubbed is a double standard.
  • We can be conscious of our behavior and communicate to minimize the negative effects of engaging with our devices when we need to.

We’ve heard the term “snubbing,” referring to not paying someone attention when expected. Now we have the term “phubbing” to refer to snubbing someone in an interpersonal interaction by engaging with our phone (or some other electronic device). Research on the phenomenon has involved naturalistic measurement (asking about peoples’ lived experiences) and controlled experiments, and the findings are important for both our work and personal relationships.

It’s no surprise that people on the receptive end of phubbing tend to feel excluded and ignored and experience decreased relationship satisfaction and more negative opinions of the phubber. Most of us probably already knew that or figured as much, so why does the behavior continue? It appears that we have a blind spot. When we engage with our phone, tablet, or computer during interactions with others, we are much less likely to recognize the detrimental effects than when someone else is engaging in the very same behavior when we’re trying to communicate with them.

Explaining the Double Standard

This double standard in phubbing is an example of a more general bias we humans are prone to: the observer-actor bias. As actors, we are aware of our motives and intentions, but as observers, we have to infer the motives and intentions of the other person. We are much more likely to note positive intentions for our own behavior and less positive ones for similar behavior by others.

So, when we look at an electronic device while someone is talking with us, we tend to feel it is justified. Perhaps there is an important notification that we are expecting or that might have just popped up, or we are looking up something relevant to the conversation at hand. Plus, we tend to think that we are pretty good at multitasking, so we assume we can still pay adequate attention to the other person.

When the other person is engaged with an electronic device while we’re talking, their motives might be these as well, but that is not necessarily clear. So it is easy to assume a lack of interest, poor social skills, self-centeredness, or inability to multitask.

What Can We Do?

The lesson here? Pay more attention to our own behavior, and refrain from engaging with devices during conversations, to the extent possible. If you do decide to focus your attention elsewhere, explicitly communicate why. “I’m sorry, but there is the possibility of an important message, so please excuse me while I quickly check.” Or, “I just thought of X that is relevant to our conversation. Let me quickly look it up.”

Good advice, regardless of phubbing, is to focus on maintaining eye contact and showing signs of engagement and interest. The occasional nod, responsive facial expressions, and little verbal sounds of affirmation go a long way. And to the extent that your attention is unevenly split between the device and the other person, intentionally weigh heavier toward your conversation partner.

When you find yourself feeling irritated at being phubbed, it’s easy to recommend giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. In the moment, that may be easier said than done. Perhaps a more realistic approach is to communicate that you notice the other person’s focus on a device but do so inquisitively. “It looks like you may need to focus on something else right now. Should we continue this conversation later?” Or, in response to a sudden shift of attention to a device, “Did you just think of something that might relate?” Such comments make your conversational partner aware of their behavior (and how noticeable it is to you) and offer the opportunity for the other person to share their intention behind the attentional shift.


Barrick, E. M., Barasch, A., & Tamir, D.I. (2022). The unexpected social consequences of diverting attention to our phones. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101, article 104344.

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