Can't make new friends? Keep your smartphone off the table

Dude, put the phone AWAY. She's right there.
Dude, put the phone AWAY. She's right there.Getty Images stock / Today

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By Cari Nierenberg, NBC News

“My husband is addicted to his smartphone,” Yvette Potts Crumpley wrote on Facebook. “It took several arguments to finally come to an agreement – he will try not to be on the phone when we are out together, and I will try not to complain when he is on at home.”

Dude, put the phone AWAY. She's right there.Getty Images stock / Today

A cellphone may not only cause problems with loved ones or friends, but a new small study suggests it can actually get in the way of forming new relationships.

Even the mere presence of a cell phone on the table can have a negative effect on a face-to-face conversation, according to research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

British researchers found that when a cellphone was placed on a nearby desk while two unfamiliar college-age people spoke with one another for 10 minutes, they felt less close after the interaction and reported a lower quality relationship compared to pairs who talked while no phone was in the room. 

In a second experiment, scientists asked 18 pairs of young people to have a casual conversation and 18 separate twosomes to discuss a more meaningful topic. For half of the pairs a cellphone was on hand during the 10-minute bonding exercise; for the rest it was absent.

Researchers found lower levels of trust, empathy, and relationship quality between partners who talked when a cellphone was present than when it wasn't there. These effects were strongest when pairs were having a deeper conversation.

"The findings indicate people might need to think carefully about giving in to the urge to have the phone out during meaningful conversations," says study researcher Dr. Andrew Przybylski, a lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Essex. "There might be social costs to having a phone out that you don't expect," he adds. 

A cellphone could get in the way of building intimacy in a relationship while putting your phone away could communicate you're really tuned in, Przybylski suggests.

Mobile phones may draw people's attention away from social interactions in the present to conversations they could be having if they used their phones, he suspects.

Przybylski says that he and study co-author Netta Weinstein decided to explore this topic after noticing more people leaving their phones out on tables and bars, where they could be distracting from meals and conversations. They wondered why people did this -- was it a pressing desire to stay in touch, a status symbol, or a habit?

Because pre-existing relationships have more complexity and carry baggage which could sway the findings, they investigated how simply the sight of this ever-present device can influence the behavior of two strangers. The presence of a mobile phone may undermine different processes in established relationships, such as satisfaction with a conversation.

Leaving a phone visible on a table introduces a barrier that takes away from the people you're with, says Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. At mealtimes, he recommends that "a phone is not the fourth utensil. There's no place for it on the place setting."

Yet at times, many of us are guilty of showing more interest in our gadgets than the human beings right in front of us.

"My ex CONSTANTLY had his nose buried in his Android, Krista Walker wrote on TODAY Health Facebook. It annoyed me to no end! Its one thing to check an email quick, but it was like pulling teeth to drag his attention from that screen. Its EXTREMELY rude!”

If you want to avoid bad tech manners in public, Post Senning, whose ebook "Manners in a Digital World," is due out in January, offers these cell phone etiquette tips:

  • Give your full attention to the person you're with during social interactions rather than to the mobile device.
  • Avoid using your cellphone as a security blanket. Sure, it can connect you to something familiar when you're in a new or awkward situation, but it also makes you less accessible or available to others. 
  • Be conscious of the loudness of your voice while talking, and remember to tone down the volume.
  • Beware of private conversations in public places. Be considerate of your surroundings and realize you may have an audience who hears your every word.
  • Avoid making or taking calls when they're likely to disturb and distract others, such as in a library or movie theatre, during a meeting, or at a restaurant or house of worship.
  • When meeting people for the first time, defer to more formal behavior to make a good first impression.

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