I recently broke up with someone who, among other issues, had the annoying habit of always checking his phone (texting, status updates, etc) whether we were on the couch watching a movie or in the 5 seconds it would take me to throw something in a garbage can. While I understand we live in an age dominated by smartphones (which I don’t have, btw), I found this person’s behavior troubling. It wasn’t that I was jealous of him cheating on me, but I always felt “less important,” as if I were competing with a device rather than having him fully present. Am I right to feel this way or is this just the “new normal” of interpersonal communication in the 21st century?
You're totally justified in feeling how you feel, and also, it's the new normal. Given the spate of technology-related questions I've gotten recently, you're not alone in wondering how prominently such devices ought to be incorporated into our social interactions. If you're dating someone, and the idea of a perfect night out for both of you is photographing your dinners, posting the pictures on Facebook and then waiting for the "likes" to come in, then your habits are compatible and maybe the relationship has a shot. But if, as you said, your partner is attached to his phone while you have a little gadget that can only receive calls (gasp!), maybe this difference highlights other underlying differences.
You say there are other reasons you broke up, but I wonder if they were all related to communication differences. I suspect there may have been a way to address these issues in order to find out if the problem was actual rudeness or simply obliviousness. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation in the future with a friend or love interest, I think it's worth saying something like, "I love spending time with you, and it would mean a lot to me if you could keep your phone away while we're together unless there's an emergency."
So, what constitutes an emergency? As a very wise friend recently said to me recently when discussing this very issue, "It better be a dying grandmother for him to take that call." If you're hanging out with a group of friends at a casual get-together, you can get away with answering your phone for a wider variety of reasons than, say, during a wedding ceremony. It's also worth asking yourself what you're going to get out of answering (or looking at your email/texts, which really is the more prevelant concern these days). Are you actually going to be able to help if there's a true emergency? Is the knowledge of whatever is contained in that text going to impact you if you find out now versus an hour from now?
All that being said, your relationship to your phone versus your date might be a matter of deep import, and it might not. Two days after my husband and I met, he sent me my first ever text message. It said, "Do you text?" After much struggling to figure out how to respond, I wrote back, "No." A bunch of years and a slew of phones later, I have a smart phone, and I love it. Just last night, I had to apologize to the person sitting next to me at an event for texting during a speech (though, in my defense, it was the first time I was away from my new baby for more than an hour, and I had to find out how things were going at home). This personal note is all by way of saying that devices are here to stay, and though you can't control other people''s behavior, you can control who you interact with and what role you allow technology to play in your own relationships. It's also by way of saying that, you never know, in a couple years, you might get a smart phone and be the one who needs to learn the rules in this ever changing world of cyber-etiquette.