Fake Phoning


What is ‘fake phoning’?

‘Fake phoning’ ( or ‘phoney phoning‘ as I’ve also seen it described) is the act of pretending to text or call or even perhaps just pretending to scroll on your smartphone. It’s an act that occurs in public and social situations for different reasons – most of which can usually be boiled down to wanting to appear busy because you feel uncomfortable and awkward. I wasn’t really sure how many people did this; I’d just put it down to the fact that I’m very socially awkward. However, discussing my idea in class and having other people admit they did it and talking to it about friends has made me realise that almost everyone does it. Although I should note all the people I’ve spoken to are my age and I think it’s a much more common trait in Millennials.

In 2011 the Pew Research Centre conducted extensive research into the use of mobiles in America, the study found that 1 in 8 people fake using their phone to avoid interaction with others. That’s 13% of all mobile phone users. Even more interestingly that percentage is boosted up to 30% of people aged between 18-29. And that’s from a study that was done several years ago, with smartphones evolving so rapidly and people becoming more dependent on them I wonder whether that number has spiked.


Main reasons people fake phone:

When I was collaborating with my friend Paige we discussed all the different reasons that people might fake phone and the reasons which have caused us to fake phone. The main reasons Paige has ever pretended to use her phone are:

  • To feel comfortable – we both described our phones as comforting items, the solidarity of them is just incredibly reassuring.
  • Feeling insecure/judged – sometimes when you’re on your own it can feel as though other people are judging you, looking at your phone takes the weight out of this feeling.
  • Feeling awkward – this is the most common one, both when I was discussing it with Paige and when I offhandedly asked friends whether they had fake phoned – feeling awkward is something everyone tries to avoid by going on their phone.
  • Feeling unsafe – I hadn’t previously thought of this at all, but as soon as Paige mentioned it I agreed and I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it earlier. She described a situation of being at the train station alone at night with a few dodgy characters around; the phone once again provides a barrier from unwanted attention and interaction.


Understanding why people ‘fake phone’

Erving Goffman has done extensive study of the social landscape and normative behaviour in public places that is helpful in better understanding why people use their phones in public. In his 1963 book Behaviour in Public Spaces Goffman recognises two types of people in public spaces; Singles and Withs. Singles are those on their own who are vulnerable to approach and Withs and those with other people. For Singles smartphones act as a barrier, as maybe in the past a newspaper or a book might have done, it blocks unwanted contact and interaction with others by making themselves look busy. As Goffman puts it, “Singles, more than those who are accompanied, make an effort to externalize a legitimate purpose and character, that is, render proper facts about themselves easily readable through what can be gleaned by looking at them.”

Supposedly Withs, because they’re accompanied by others do not feel the urge to protect themselves, except in situations when their partner leaves to use the bathroom or do something else which renders them vulnerable. Another situation is when their partner participates in what Goffman calls ‘cross talk’. This occurs when “one member of a With momentarily sustains exclusive talk with someone who is not in the With” which may result in the other person feeling awkward or being excluded. Lee Humphreys has done further research into crosstalk using Goffmans theory as a basis she looks specifically at smartphone cross talk in her article Cellphones in public: social interactions in a wireless era. Humphreys discusses the isolation which results due to smartphone cross talk. This results in fake phoning because when someone from a With is on their phone often the other person feels excluded and uncomfortable.

During all of these social situation in public space which Goffman refers to can be related to people in modern day public spaces, except rather than diffusing awkwardness by appearing busy reading a newspaper all they need is their phone in their hand. The result – a cool collected human being who may feel awkward on the inside but is exuding the ‘I’m busy replying to texts from my hundreds of friends’ vibe.

The thing I find most interesting is the idea of a smartphone acting as a barrier. In all the situations mentioned above people turn to their smartphone as a safety net, it almost acts as a physical barrier. People on their phones give the impression that they’re busy, uninterested in what’s around them – effectively making a person unapproachable. Humphreys talk about this concept of smartphones acting as “shields against intrusion from others.” When people participate in fake phoning they are actively trying to block out the rest of the world and cut themselves off from the people around them.

Fake scrolling

Fake scrolling is unchartered territory. I couldn’t find any past research on it. The biggest question for me was – what constituted as fake scrolling? Does it only count when you’re pretending to scroll when your phone is actually turned off? Or does it still count as fake scrolling when you’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter but you have no intention to actually read what’s there, it’s just a distraction and a way to convincingly making yourself look busy. After talking to different friends about the concept and discussing it with Paige we decided it depended on the intent of the individual. If someone goes onto a social media app because the want to avoid interaction or look busy then that would constitute as fake scrolling.

Are we too dependent?


Does this dependency on our smartphone sin public places mean we’re excluding ourselves from the world. The smartphone has undoubtedly increases our dependency on devices but this idea of fake phoning  did exist pre-smartphone. Paige says even in the days of flip phones she would pretend to text, “Ever since I’ve had a phone it’s just been a comfort thing. I feel very strange when I haven’t got my phone.”

It’s gotten to the point where, when left in situation without a phone we feel lost. I know that when I’ve forgotten my phone and gone out to dinner with friends as soon as they go on their phones I feel uncomfortable and I’ll probably end up reading the menu fifty times over or fold, unfold and refold a napkin just so my eyes and hands are busy and I don’t feel awkward. Our phones provide an outlet and a lot of people become very reliant on their phones in public and social spaces.
Paige: “I always carry my phone, just when I’m walking around, like the uni – pretty much anywhere – I feel very awkward if I’m just like walking down the street and I haven’t got my phone in my hand. I feel like I always have to be holding something to distract me or, like, to be looking at.”
There’s even a Facebook page called Pretending to Text in Awkward Situations with over 3 million likes.

Even if she’s not on her phone Paige will find comfort in the physical weight of it or fiddling with the buttons. Holding something and having something to look at gives people a distraction during not only unwanted situations, but really and situation, “I’ll just keep getting it out, to look like I’m getting messages or something.”


Fake phoning has become a habit for some people, particularly those of younger generations. Perhaps it is because we’ve become reliant on technology as we’ve grown up with it and we feel awkward without it. Our smartphones have become so ingrained in every aspect of our lives it makes sense that we use it in public space to avoid interaction.


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