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noun [uncountable] informal

the activity of being impolite in a social situation by looking at your phone instead of paying attention to the person you are with


verb [transitive] informal


noun [countable] informal

'Are you guilty of phubbing? It's the habit of snubbing those around you and staring at your smartphone instead of listening to them. CBC's The Current explores whether smartphones are ruining social interaction or bringing us closer together.'

CBC News 14th October 2013

'Eighty per cent chose 'during a one-on-one conversation' as the most frustrating situation to be phubbed.'

The Star Online 27th September 2013

'Mobiles have rung up a generation of phubbers … When you get a busy signal … from the person who is sitting next to you …'

Times of Malta 14th October 2013

Have you ever been chatting to a friend and succumbed to the temptation, mid-conversation, of checking your mobile and apologetically interrupting the flow because you just can't resist replying to a text message? If so, then you're guilty of a 21st century impropriety now known as phubbing.

opinion polls indicate that a one-to-one conversation is the most frustrating situation in which to be phubbed, causing the victim to feel as if the other person is disinterested in them or the conversation

Alternatively, you may be all too acquainted with the person who constantly fiddles with their phone when you're talking to them and has the irritating habit of asking you to pause, or bring them up to speed on the live dialogue that took place when they were distractedly tapping at a keypad. If this sounds familiar, then you know what it is to be phubbed.

Whether you care to admit it or not, if you're a regular mobile phone user then there's a pretty strong chance that you'll have phubbed at some point in your life, and an even greater likelihood that you've been on the receiving end of phubbing. It's a phenomenon that is simply endemic in the connected society which we currently inhabit – people persistently whip out their phones during business meetings, whilst out to dinner or in various other social situations. We can all identify with the concept, and now it has a name. We are a generation of phubbers.

Opinion polls indicate that a one-to-one conversation is the most frustrating situation in which to be phubbed, causing the victim to feel as if the other person is disinterested in them or the conversation in general. Travelling with someone in a car or on public transport, however, is deemed to be the most 'acceptable' situation in which phubbing could take place.

Surprisingly, research in the UK has also revealed that more than a third of people feel it's worse to ignore a phone message than it is to phub a friend. More worrying still, it seems that the majority of us don't even realize that we're phubbing (OK, guilty as charged!) and are unconscious of the irritation that we cause.

Background – phubbing

The word phubbing and its related derivations first appeared in 2012, formed from a blend of the noun phone and verb snub meaning 'to insult someone by ignoring them'. What's perhaps more interesting, however, is the backstory to the word's creation.

In May 2012, a team of specialists including a lexicographer, cruciverbalist (=crossword writer) and several authors gathered at Sydney University in order to brainstorm a new word referring to the phenomenon of impolitely ignoring someone when using a mobile phone (among the discarded suggestions by the way were nubbing, fumping and tele-snubphubbing definitely seems like the best of the bunch!). The word phubbing was then let loose on the world as the brainchild of Alex Haigh, a 'Melbourne student' who had set up an online campaign to draw attention to the phenomenon. Within a very short time, phubbing went global, sparking news coverage across the world and a number of surveys investigating habits and attitudes in relation to the phenomenon. In the autumn of 2013, however, it was revealed that phubbing's emergence and propagation was in fact a publicity coup orchestrated by advertising agency McCann for the publishers of the Macquarie Dictionary, designed to get people talking about words (and therefore buying dictionaries). There's a short and rather cheesy promotional video explaining the idea here.

Whatever way the word phubbing came about, it's living proof that language users can sometimes be very quick to latch on to a new coinage when it fills a lexical gap for a concept which resonates with them.

Phubbing is the latest addition to a number of coinages emerging from the sociological impact of mobile phones. Other examples, so far of limited success, include stage-phoning, ringxiety and nomophobia.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last week …

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This article was first published on 10th December 2013.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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