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August 19, 2013

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Phubbers turn social etiquette on its head

Wang Dan has always been popular among friends for her lively, talkative personality. So it was with some dismay her friends began to notice a new habit forming. She keeps glued to her iPhone and seems oblivious to those around her.

What could keep her so busy with her phone? Perhaps an e-mail, the latest anecdote about a South Korean pop singer she likes or even her hair stylist suggesting a new look. Whatever the reason, her friends at the table find her obsession with her phone unsociable.

“I do chat or surf through Weibo whenever a gathering I’m at turns boring,” said Wang, a 28-year-old customer relations manager. “However, sometimes what I see on the Internet raises new topics for discussion among friends I’m sitting with.”

Picture this. A group of friends are seated around a large, round table in a restaurant, with dish after dish being placed in front of them. Some get out their smartphones and begin taking pictures of the food. Half a minute later, their heads are all down as they post the photos online. Some use applications to embellish the pictures before uploading. During the meal, half of the diners have their noses back in their phones to receive comments from photo recipients. Conversation at the table is limited and sporadic.

If it all seems odd, you better get used to it. The digital age is turning social etiquette on its head. Now there’s even a word to describe it — phubbing.

Mostly in jest

According to the website of the international Stop Phubbing campaign,, phubbing describes “the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.”

The website was set up in July by Alex Haigh, a 23-year-old from Melbourne. It criticizes “phubbers” who are tethered to mobile gadgets even when friends or family are around them. Visitors to the website can download “Stop Phubbing” posters to place in restaurants and can browse through a gallery of celebrity phubbers caught with their noses in their smartphones on public occasions.

But don’t try to be smart and open the site from your mobile phone. It will only lead you to a page that says: “Get off your mobile and view this website on your desktop.”

The website is mostly in jest, but it does raise serious issues about social etiquette in the age of mobile phones and other hand-held devices.

China now has 270 million smartphone users, ranking No. 1 in the world. The figure accounts for only 24 percent of China mobile users, so the smartphone market has huge room for growth.

Popular Chinese social networking platforms, such as WeChat, Weibo and QQ, have developed apps that make mobile equipment all-rounders — from providing news and information to keeping in touch with the latest status of friends and relatives. The smartphone screen connects a user to the world and many users are riveted.

WeChat, a popular mobile service in China, has accumulated more than 300 million users and boasts nearly 70 million overseas. The chatting app has become a major communications tool among smartphone users and has gradually evolved into a platform for up-to-the-minute postings shared with friends.

However, such convenience undermines the warmth and intimacy of face-to-face communication. You may not see someone for several months, but you can know everything about almost every minute of their lives. And they, yours.

Just a waste of time

“We live a lifestyle of ‘passive reading and accepting’ in a multimedia era boosted by information technology,” said Gu Xiaoming, a sociology professor of Fudan University. “We are forced to take in all sorts of news and information, which is sometimes against our own best interests.”

Our personal space is inevitably squeezed when our whereabouts can be so easily tracked. Gu said we need to face up to the situation and observe some basic social rules.

“Checking out information is fine,” he said, “but there is the issue of politeness. It’s a dangerous lifestyle to expose oneself to bumping up information all day long. When a new message comes in, you find it hard not to read just in case you are missing something important. But more often than not, the message turns out to be a waste of time or an advertisement.”

He suggests time out every day, when phones are unplugged or shut off. And some people, albeit a small minority, are doing just that.

Zhu Ying, a junior in college, said she ditched her phone three months ago to benefit both her health and her studies.

“I was seriously addicted to reading novels and playing games on my cell phone, and every day for the past three years, I didn’t go to sleep before 2am.” Zhu said.

When she started to develop feelings of vertigo and began failing exams, Zhu said she realized she needed digital detox.

“The first two weeks were really hard,” she said of her phone abstinence. “But then I managed to get a new daily routine and became more concentrated on my studies.”

However, she reckons she will go back to her phone after graduation because “every professional needs a mobile for business.”

Ma, an executive director at a real estate agency who declined to give his full name, said he turns off his mobile every weekend so that he can spend quality time with his family.

His children, he said, used to get irritated when he was on the phone all the time.

Now, with no phone in his pocket, he takes the kids to parks and museums.

“The purpose of my hard work on weekdays is to earn money to provide a better living for my family,” said Ma, “I cherish each moment I can spent with my wife and kids.”

Turn that thing off

Yang Kairui, a 34-year-old yoga teacher, turned off her mobile when she attended a meditation session in the mountains last month — seven days of fasting and no communication with others.

“It sets my mind free,” she said, explaining that she now turns off her phone every day for three hours of solitude and meditation.

“Excessive use of cell phones disturbs our mental processes. I prefer face-to-face communication unless there is something really urgent.”

Yang said she worries about mobile phone addiction among children.

“Youngsters who are active on digital social platforms often turn out to be introverted in real life,” she said. “They feel at ease when talking to the screen but shy away when facing an individual.”

Disconnecting addicts from their phones can produce withdrawal effects. When Tencent’s WeChat recently broke down for five hours, many users complained they felt dislocated, restless or even severe anxiety.

No one doubts the mobile phone has changed our lives. But are we headed for a world where it’s rather silly to bother getting dressed up and going to a restaurant with friends when you can just set up a video conference app with them and eat in the comfort of home?



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