Advice Goddess

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Q: I’m so tired of these supposed magician multitaskers on their cellphones. The guy I’m dating and some of my friends don’t seem to get how disrespectful it feels when they play around on their phone or text while I’m talking to them. Am I crazy to want eye contact and attention when I’m talking?—Irritated

A: This smartphone multitasking thing probably goes further than anyone knows – like, I’m picturing a parishioner in the confessional and the priest in the adjoining booth on his phone, shopping for a new cassock: “Next-day delivery. Sweet!” Parishioner: “Um, father…did you hear me say I murdered three people and still have them in my trunk out back?”

Somebody came up with an annoyingly cute name—phubbing (a mash of “phone” and “snubbing”)—for when someone ignores you in a social setting by being all up in their phone. Not surprisingly, research by social psychologist Varoth Chotpitayasunondh finds that phubbing comes off as a form of social ostracism—allowing the snub-ee to experience that fun feeling some of us had in third grade when other kids diagnosed us with cooties and sentenced us to eat alone for the rest of elementary school.

Chotpitayasunondh’s research suggests that being phubbed by friends and acquaintances threatens our fundamental need for “belongingness.” Other research on phubbing’s effects in romantic partnerships finds (again, not surprisingly!) that it erodes intimacy and makes for less-satisfying relationships and diminished personal well-being. Regarding phubbers’ skewed priorities, the title of a study by communications prof James A. Roberts says it all: “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone.”

The important thing to remember is that you have a choice in how you are treated—whether you’ll put up with having, oh, 46 percent of someone’s attention. Your power in pushing for respectful treatment comes out of what I call the “walk away principle”: how willing you are, when somebody refuses to give you the level of respect you want, to just say, “Well, I’ll miss you!”

Q: I’ve been in recovery from drugs for six years, and I had to set a boundary with an old friend who’s abusing drugs again and lying to me and using me. I kept trying to help him, but all the lying and scamming was just too much. I finally blocked him on my phone—as I knew I had to. So why do I feel so bad about it?—Been There

A: A guy will insist he’s clean, tell you he’s finally just “high on life”—a state which…hmmm…doesn’t usually involve shouting matches with the curtains.

Your feelbad about saying no to any further convos with this guy actually has some ancient roots. Ancestral humans lived in a seriously harsh environment, so we evolved to cooperate—to work together and help each other—making it less likely we’d starve to death and/or get eaten by lions. But people don’t always put out a memo listing their needs, so how do we know when to help? Well, welcome to the evolution of empathy, our tuning into others’ emotions and “catching” what they’re feeling (to some degree).

Unless you’re a sociopath or a sex robot, empathy rises up automatically, as does its sister state, compassion. Compassion, as I define it in “Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck,” is “empathy with an action plan”—motivating us to want to do something to help when we see a person suffering.

In other words, your emotional overlords have been pinging you, alerting you that somebody’s in distress, and unfortunately, reason (as usual!) is late to the party. That’s to be expected, because reason is what cognitive scientists call an “effortful process,” in contrast with the automatic “Awww, poor you!” of empathy. Get reason out of bed and use it to remind yourself that you weren’t helping this guy; you were enabling him—“protecting (him) from the consequences of his behavior” (as they put it at HazeldonBettyFord.com). Sure, there may come a time when he’s ready to “say no to drugs,” but right now, he and drugs are having some very interesting conversations and may even start a podcast.

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