Phubbing: New Norm or No-No?

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I was inching my grocery cart forward in line at Trader Joe's the other day, nonchalantly checking out my smart phone when I glanced up and caught the cashier's eyes locked on mine. Not a word was uttered but his cold stare conveyed his thoughts. He was a human being. The phone in my hand was a thing. I had just broken that cardinal rule of etiquette. At that moment, I had crossed over from being a polite person and to a phubber.

To the uninitiated, phubbing is the act of snubbing people in favor of your cell phone.

The practice has become so widespread you may not even notice it. We've all been there: Out to eat with friends, instead of conversation or even menu grazing, people are working their phones. Then there are meetings where employees pull out their mobile phones, slap them on the table and tap out messages, unapologetically multitasking, as the meeting proceeds. (The less bold stealthfully check theirs on their laps, eyes flitting guiltily back and forth as if they know they shouldn't but, well, everyone does it.) But whether we are truly waiting for a message that will impact the day's schedule or are compulsively checking social media feeds, news flashes and email notifications matters little. The effect on others is the same: the people who are phubbed feel disrespected, even dehumanized.

"Sorry," I mumbled to the cashier, realizing how that if I -- an avowed simplicity advocate and technoskeptic -- had fallen into the phubbing trap how pervasive the problem really is. In fact, research shows that our addiction to modern technology is not only changing the biochemistry of our brains but eroding primary relationships while interfering with those more casual and episodic interactions that constitute our quality of life.

Phubbing is not some innocuous no-no like accidentally passing gas in the hall or cracking your knuckles when you think no one can hear. Those minor infractions are occasional occurrences, but phubbing represents a slippery slope where your primary alliance becomes your phone -- and the virtual world to which it grants access 24-seven -- rather than the flesh-and-blood human being right in front of you.

A clear policy for use of cell phones is needed everywhere. In general, the adage less is more applies universally when it comes to digital usage. However, for development professionals -- whose stock in trade is relationship building, often among older individuals who are less approving of digital technology than others -- the rules are crystal clear: put away the phone. Indeed, overdependence on one's cell phone and the phubbing that will inevitably ensue constitutes nothing short of an occupational hazard.

More than 92% of American adults now own a cell phone of some kind, according to the Pew Research Center on the Internet & Technology, and almost half of those owners "rarely turn it off." The Pew report continues: "This 'always-on' reality has disrupted long-standing social norms about when it is appropriate for people to shift their attention away from their physical conversation and interactions with others towards digital encounters."

In order to combat this "always-on" mentality, implement the following at work:

1. On a call:

When you're going to call on a prospect, put the phone on silent and tuck it out of sight, in your pocket or purse. Take it out only if needed for a specific task, such as checking directions for a restaurant. But once that task has been accomplished, resist the temptation to sneak extra peeks at unrelated texts or emails. Laser focus on your prospect.

2. In the office:

Even if you're not with a donor, prospect, or your boss, it still pays dividends to make a practice of putting away your phone at work and using it sparingly. Concentrating on the task at hand -- whether it's writing a proposal, answering emails or making phone calls -- will help improve your focus, flow, and efficiency on the job. You may want to give yourself two or three times to check your phone daily, such as 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., and stick to it. A good trick is to power off the phone, and put it out of sight.

3. Building trust with co-workers:

Once you realize that putting away your cell phone improves your productivity on the job, you may witness a new reciprocity: If one person leaves her cell phone unused, the other often follows suit. Setting aside phone usage helps build better relationships with the people around you: your peers, your subordinates and your superiors.

Studies have shown that those who use cell phones while others are not are perceived as being less trustworthy. Because building trust is the most essential task of a development professional, it stands to reason that putting the phone away will serve you well.

4. If you're the phubee:

If you find yourself in the position of being a phubee, bring it up with your coworker to let him or her know that their compulsive phone checking is interfering with your relationship. An occasional text can be let go, but if their phubbing becomes habitual, it will do lasting damage. Have this conversation, but be sure you practice what you preach.

5. The power of presence:

At Crouch & Associates, Bill Crouch recently introduced a policy at our weekly ZOOM conference calls -- that we give our exclusive attention to the conference call. This means, we will not take notes on a laptop or on paper, and we will definitely not check our smart phones during the conference. This power or presence has already made difference in the quality of our team's weekly sessions.

6. If you must use the phone:

Let's say you're out having coffee with a donor and you realize that you must check your phone to confirm a meeting or schedule a delivery. What to do? If there is no way to put off responding, the best idea is to excuse yourself to the restroom and send a quick message then. Then put your phone away and don't check it again until the meeting is over. It's a matter of politeness. It's also common sense.

Once you become conscious of the dangers of phubbing -- and adopt strategies to combat it -- you're better positioned to build stronger relationships and find greater success heading your way.