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Cellphones Communications Science

Why Overheard Cell Phone Chats Are Annoying 344

__roo writes "American researchers think they have found the answer to the question of why overhearing cell phone chats are annoying. According to scientists at Cornell University, when only half of the conversation is overheard, it drains more attention and concentration than when overhearing two people talking. According to one researcher, 'We have less control to move away our attention from half a conversation (or halfalogue) than when listening to a dialogue. Since halfalogues really are more distracting and you can't tune them out, this could explain why people are irritated.' Their study will be published in the journal Psychological Science."
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Why Overheard Cell Phone Chats Are Annoying

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  • by sh00z ( 206503 ) <sh00z@yaho o . c om> on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:30PM (#32286476) Journal
    people talk so damn loud on their cell phones, could it?
    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      That's not true of a lot of people. Based on this research, you may perceive it has being louder because you are giving it more attention.

      Some people are jack asses and speak too loudly.

      • by miggyb ( 1537903 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:53PM (#32286742) Homepage
        Clearly, the only solution is to have everyone speaking on speakerphone. That way, no attention is drained since you're listening to the entire conversation.
      • by shmlco ( 594907 )

        Actually, there was another report that I'm not going to bother to lookup, that said about half the people studied unconsciously speak about 50% louder than the ambient noise level when on the phone.

        Note the "unconsciously" part. There's a good chance you're one of them.

      • by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @10:10PM (#32288408)
        No, actually it is true. A cellphone, in contrast to the traditional type, does not pipe your own voice back at you through the receiver. The consequence is that people don't know how loud it is that they're being heard on the other end. Hence the yelling. Additionally most cellphones are designed to pick up very quiet speech at a close range.

        Add that all up and you get people that are shouting on the phone and unaware that they're talking too loud. In fact in many cases you don't even have to be able to hear yourself talking for it to be coming in loud and clear on the other end of the call.
    • by thrawn_aj ( 1073100 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @09:36PM (#32288156)
      Since anecdotal gibberish passes for research these days (talking about tfa, not you), here's mine. I've ridden the same bus-line for the past 5 years in Berkeley - mixture of work commuters, high school kids and university kids. Done that pretty much most times of the day (unpredictable work hours) so I think I have a rather detailed sampling of the commuter crowds.

      The one thing I've always found is that people in groups (3+) are BY FAR the single most annoying loud talkers EVER. Couples tend to be quieter (not all ethnicities but most). Pre-college kids are the absolute worst in terms of noise pollutants. What's worse is that they frequently play music - sorry, animal noises - on their phones for the group without headphones. College kids are just as bad because everyone appears to find safety in numbers when it comes to shouting their point out loud - again, ethnic and racial differences are dramatic (and no, I ain't white =p).

      I would rank loud cell phone talkers probably 3rd or 4th in order of annoyance. The reasoning in tfa might be valid for most, but halfalogues haven't really bothered me in the past few years. Probably because I've heard so many full dialogues on the bus and now KNOW that most people really converse about stupid, uninteresting shit and can pretty much fill in the other sides of the convos without giving it much thought. So, tfa might be right, but intelligent human beings tend to adapt to frequently prevailing conditions. People who use public transport only once in a blue moon would find it the hardest I guess.

      For me, the single most annoying thing that I have never adapted to is the Berkeley bum smell clinging to every bus and is probably the one reason I would accept without reservation for someone to waste money on gas and parking spaces. The "smelly car" episode in Seinfeld always resonated with me. *Cough* moving on.

      It always amazes me that people who are having conversations in public places (not too quietly either in that you can hear everything quite clearly) actually have the gall to look dirty at people talking on cell phones just as (if not less) loudly than they are. For me (once you've adapted to ignore things), it is simply a matter of decibel level. I argue only from experience, not plausibility.
      br> And for the record, I don't have cell phone convos on the bus, even though I usually travel alone. It's far too noisy to have a civilized convo. I figure if I'm not gonna have any peace and quiet, I might as well have the noise that I choose blasting in my ear instead of the mundane drivel that assails my ears everyday. The people who invented earphones and portable mp3 players should be given Nobel peace prizes because I am positive that they have prevented several noise-related homicides over the years =D.

      In parting, I will only say that tfa being right just means that most people are nosy busybodies at heart who don't have the decency to ignore private conversations. Oh, is that too uncharitable an interpretation? Let me know when people sober up and lower their idiotic cellphone rage (that I half-suspect is a reactionary luddite thing for people of a certain age and an acquired issue for most youngsters who've heard one too many jokes and sitcom plots based on it) and I'll be sure to retract it. It's like fat people - an easy and socially acceptable thing to ridicule.
  • by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:30PM (#32286480) Journal

    I find amusing. I can learn more about a person from being a creepy eavesdropper than most people can by conversing with that person.

    • Could it be that "those damn youngsters" have this one right?...

      Both when it comes to being rather discrete and maintaining privacy.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by thrawn_aj ( 1073100 )
        Indeed. Same thing with the sulky teens with headphones you see everywhere. Oldies complain about that all the time but forget the 80's with douchebags carrying fucking boomboxes everywhere with noise blaring out. Hooray for technology I say. If I see kids playing music on their phones (in the bus for example) without earphones, I have to consciously restrain myself from grabbing it from the stupid little shit and throwing it out the window (no, I could never do it but saying it is very cathartic).
  • Also... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MrEricSir ( 398214 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:31PM (#32286492) Homepage

    * They're usually talking louder than everyone else.
    * They're not looking where they're walking.
    * They're constantly shouting "WHAT DID YOU SAY?"
    * They're unable to talk to you because they're distracted by another conversation

    • Re:Also... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by geekoid ( 135745 ) <<moc.oohay> <ta> <dnaltropnidad>> on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:48PM (#32286698) Homepage Journal

      * They're usually talking louder than everyone else.
      * They're not looking where they're walking.
      * They're constantly shouting "WHAT DID YOU SAY?"
      * They're unable to talk to you because they're distracted by another conversation

      That looks like a list of bias confirmations.

      Well done.

      • That looks like a list of bias confirmations.

        Well done.

        Bias against the notion that the universe contains only one person?


        Did your anti-psychotics roll under the couch or something? Your poise is melting. Again. (What was that you said just a moment ago about knifing people? [])

        This is a classic example of a twit in denial using ill-suited science lingo to squash an idea offensive to his tiny and ridiculous personal belief structure. Sorry, but everybody else on the planet knows exactly what their five senses and personal awareness are complaining abo

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Just because it's biased doesn't make it false...
  • Backwards (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ascari ( 1400977 )
    So by that token it would make more sense to ban cell phone use by passengers in a car than by the driver?
    • Re:Backwards (Score:5, Informative)

      by cpirius ( 1002255 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:01PM (#32286860)
      It does not say that overhearing half a conversation takes more concentration then having a conversation yourself, it says that overhearing half a conversation takes more concentration than overhearing both sides of a conversation.
    • Not necessarily. Did they factor in variables such as if you personally know one of the people in the conversation or what the subject was? Your wife arranging hotel rooms for the night on your family vacation is not the same as a prick at a restaurant shouting about the chick he met at the bar last night. You only hear one side of the conversation in both scenarios but are otherwise radically different.
  • but trying to fill in the missing part of the conversation from scratch. I couldn't give two shits about what he is going to say next, except when I'm on a train and someone answers a call the next thing they invariably say is "I'm on the twain!@!!"

    *orders parts for GSM/3G jammer*
  • by megli ( 649925 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:31PM (#32286500) Homepage
    The obvious solution is for everyone to use speaker-phone.
  • It's because the people I overhear are inconsiderate jerks with nothing useful to say and half of the conversation is 50% more than I'm interested in hearing.

  • interesting research (Score:3, Interesting)

    by blitzkrieg3 ( 995849 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:33PM (#32286514)
    I was just talking about this with my friend yesterday. She said that someone on the bus just looks over at a woman on her cell phone, and that another rider gave her the dirtiest look until he spoke up and said, 'please put away your cell phone' My friend thought the guy was rude, but I thought he was justified. Cell phones seriously irritate me. That's one good thing about riding the subway.
    • But who says your personal preferences outweigh those of another?

      And you don't have cell phone service in your subway? Do you live in the 80's?

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by nomadic ( 141991 )
        I agree with your first sentence. As to your second sentence, the NYC subways don't support cell phone service, and they're the only real subways anyway.
      • by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:54PM (#32286762)

        But who says your personal preferences outweigh those of another?

        It's not a one to one trade off. It's more like one person enjoying the phone call, 30 people being annoyed by it. It's just plain rude.

    • by shitdrummer ( 523404 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:00PM (#32286846)

      When people chat loudly on a phone while on public transport, I like to comment on their conversation when they hang up.

      Me: It sounds like Susan is a real drama queen. You should tell her to stop being so dramatic.
      Phone person: What, were you listening in to my private conversation?
      Me: Oh I'm sorry, I didn't realise it was private. I thought you wanted to involve everyone else on the train in your mindless pap.
      Phone person: !!?!?

      I don't mind people talking on phones when they need to. e.g. I'll be at the station in 20 mins, can you come pick me up? But why have full detailed conversations while on a packed bus/train?

      • by eharvill ( 991859 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:30PM (#32287142)

        I don't mind people talking on phones when they need to. e.g. I'll be at the station in 20 mins, can you come pick me up? But why have full detailed conversations while on a packed bus/train?

        Why does it matter either way? If that person on the other end of the phone were there, it would have been OK? I think the main problem is people speaking too loudly. That is definitely annoying, whether it's on a phone or in person. Same thing on an airplane, train, restaurant, sidewalk, etc. I have no problem with people speaking on the phone assuming they are using a "normal" volume to speak with. People speaking to each other excessively loud in person annoys me just as much.

  • Well, duh. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pem ( 1013437 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:33PM (#32286518)
    The brain unconsciously tries to make sense of conversation going on around it. Half-conversations are problematic; foreign languages are problematic.

    I used to set in a cube next to a guy who was always talking on the phone in Chinese. It always gave me a headache, because of the double whammy of hearing half a conversation in a language that I don't understand.

    • Re:Well, duh. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sznupi ( 719324 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:53PM (#32286748) Homepage

      Just a bit foreign languages (from one linguistic group) are actually more irritating, possibly. With totally foreign & unknown ones - they're just gibberrish. With related ones - there's constant trying to make sense out of something which doesn't have much of it, to you; trigerred by occasional words or even whole sentences which do sound "right"... (even if their true meaning is different)

    • by Cyberax ( 705495 )


      I have an opposite situation - I can 'tune out' someone talking in English (it's not my native language) if I start thinking in Russian. Works great during boring meetings.

      The same for Russian - I can tune it out by thinking in English, though it doesn't always work.

  • trying to get information from someone while they're on the phone. You know how annoying it is at my part-time waiting gig trying to take an order from someone who won't put down the phone for the 10 seconds it takes to order ?
    • I work at a counter of sorts as well. I'm not sure if you can.. but what I do is I just walk away while looking them straight in the eye and slowly turn away. Then they refocus on the opportunity that they are about to lose (their time) and make the order. It's like taking a bone away from a medium to small size dog -- if you didn't have their attention before you do now.
  • Sigh (Score:5, Informative)

    by tool462 ( 677306 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:35PM (#32286534)

    I'm pretty sure I remember coming across a news piece that said exactly this a good 10-20 years ago. The only thing I got out of this article is the word "halfalogue". Specifically, I added it to the List of Words I Must Never Utter. It sounds too much like Heffalump to ever be spoken in polite conversation. It joins other worthy contenders such as irregardless, paradigm, and "the cloud".

    • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:45PM (#32286664) Homepage

      Paradigm is a valid word. It is just painfully misused and overused. The word first came into wide use after Kuhn wrote "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." In that book he argues that different branches of science go through successive paradigms which encompass their general framework for understanding their matter of study. The vast majority of science then occurs within these consensus attitudes. People now use paradigm in such a general way as to be close to meaningless. For example, people talk about technological paradigms which makes no sense in a Kuhnian framework. Similarly, people talk about paradigms in the humanities while Kuhn spent quite a bit of effort explaining and showing how the humanities don't form paradigms and undergo paradigm shifts in the same way at all, in that consensus never occurs for any overarching explanatory structure. Don't blame the word paradigm. Blame the people who use it as a buzzword.

      Also, while I'm at it, I strongly recommend that any interested Slashdotter read Kuhn's book. He's an excellent writer who makes a strong case. I think he's incorrect but it is a very enjoyable read and one get's to learn a lot of neat historical facts that are often overlooked or not discussed in standard pop explanations of the history of science. He also wrote "The Copernican Revolution" which is also very readable and provides a very different view of the switch from geocentrism to heliocentrism then that which is often presented.

      • I think he's incorrect but it is a very enjoyable read and one get's to learn a lot of neat historical facts that are often overlooked or not discussed in standard pop explanations of the history of science.

        What do you think he's incorrect about?


        • I think he's incorrect in three respects: 1) He underestimates the level within people in different paradigms can talk to each other (for example, he tried to argue at one point that someone in a Newtonian paradigm can't really talk to someone in a relativistic paradigm) 2) He underestimates the degree to which people can during crisis choose one paradigm or another based on objective considerations (such as based on simplicity, ability to account for evidence, degree of consistency with other stable paradi
    • Re:Sigh (Score:4, Interesting)

      by EdIII ( 1114411 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @08:01PM (#32287478)

      Specifically, I added it to the List of Words I Must Never Utter.

      Fo' Shizzle

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by emm-tee ( 23371 )

      I'm pretty sure I remember coming across a news piece that said exactly this a good 10-20 years ago..

      Yep, it's old news. Here's an article from 2004, about some research done in the UK: []

      Here's the summary of the paper at []

      You can find also find the PDF.

  • Yup... (Score:5, Funny)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:35PM (#32286536) Journal

    As heard at the supermarket.

    Ring ring Hi hon ... Yeah just picking up some Cheerios ... Nope, haven't seen him ... You haven't either ... I hadn't heard about that ... Six of them, eh? Wow, he must have had raw thighs ... Really, I didn't know you could do that with motor oil ... Ignited you say ... Yeah, I think you have to wait 48 hours ... That's something she'll have to ask their insurance company ... Okay, home in a few.

  • I run a bunch of labs at a community college lately (hey things are tough all over), and one thing I've noticed is people love to talk at the top of their voice when on the cell phone - that's annoying in a study hall.

  • So if I hear someone yapping away in a different tongue (one which I don't speak), then I won't find it annoying?
  • They are annoyiong (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    1) they are happening somewhere that a regular conversation shouldn't be (i.e. theatre while movie is playing)
    2) they are happening while on the road, and the driver is noticeably swerving.

  • I often have a log when using my smartphone these days. Well, not with my iPhone [].
  • by abbynormal brain ( 1637419 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:46PM (#32286676)

    ... Public Masturbation. Taboo or tubular? You decide.

  • Hemilogue (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mutatis Mutandis ( 921530 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @06:47PM (#32286684)

    Surely half a monologue is a hemilogue?

    If one must invent neologisms, then at least it should be done properly. It's the only thing people are going to remember from this 'research'.

  • 'Allo mate! Tim 'ere! Yeah, I've been off on 'oliday. Yeah.

    Was down in Spain on me bike. Lovely weather, mate, but I was sayin' to the wife, we went up in the mountains on this mowtaway, three thaasand feet and it only bloody started snowin' IN SPAIN IN MAY!!!!

    You know that snow and bikes don't mix, well, I was doin' 5 miles an owa...

    Yeah, and them when we got daaahn to the plain, it TURNED TO RAIN mate!!!! Rain in Spain on the PLAIN!!!

  • ...and then they had to tazer her again!
  • by martyb ( 196687 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @07:29PM (#32287134)

    The researchers have identified that a "halfalogue" is confusing, but I'd like to share another aspect I did not see addressed in the article. It's not just what is being said, it's also how it's being said.

    In polite conversation there is a protocol, if you will, of how I speak to someone else. Tone of voice, intonation, and the like provide information in addition to the words that I use. When I have a question and ask someone for an answer, there's a change in the tone of my voice at the end and then a pause while I await the other person's answer. Kind of an out-of-band signaling system.

    To complicate matters, there are times when I've daydreamed while someone was talking to me, and then all of a sudden I realize that I have been asked a question and they are waiting for my answer.

    So, when I'm only hearing part of a conversation, and then there's this ... pause ... there's a part of me that thinks "OMG, did I zone out and they are waiting for me to respond?" Since I do NOT hear the other side of the conversation, I get confusing inputs. Audio inputs suggest I should say something; visual inputs say it's not for me.

  • Wrong and Wronger (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Thursday May 20, 2010 @09:06PM (#32287984) Journal

    If the suggested theory (using the term at its loosest possible fitting) is correct, it would have been noticed not long after "Watson, come here, I need you." It wasn't.

    What people found most annoying at first, and some still do, is the violation of accepted protocol of interpersonal communication. When someone near you starts to talk out loud, it had always been a safe bet that they were talking to you. You redirect your attention and prepare to interact. Then you find out they weren't talking to you, may not even be aware of your existence, but there you are standing in front of them feeling like you've been made a fool of (or made of fool of yourself by starting to talk back). And It's All Their Fault. After a decade and more of experiencing it, fewer are bothered, and half a generation has been raised on a different context and can't understand why there was even a problem.

    Another effect comes from violation of personal space (there's an auditory version as well as a visual-spatial). If someone invades your space without acknowledging you so they can apologize or get permission or whatever, it's a nonverbal communication version of a slap in the face. And as for failing to acknowledge you, when someone fails to consider whether you want to hear whatever it is they're blabbering about and fills your hearing space with talking far louder than is needed (especially considering they're not talking to anyone in sight), they're making an implied statement that if it bothers you, too fucking bad for you.

    There are even some people who make a point of talking louder than they would otherwise because they want you to know they think they're important and you're not. At first, when only the rich could afford them, they made a point of doing this in restaurants and other places, even repeatedly interrupting a conversation with you or someone else to 'take a call'. There were more than a few comedy acts and sitcoms that jabbed at those people by emphasizing the few but true instances of people faking calls to do this in others' presence. The same happens now, but more often with people who couldn't afford to keep their phone on but don't want you to know that.

    A one-liner version of this all could be "look at me not talking to you".

    But as I said, with the passing years most people who were bothered have gotten used to it, and many more have come of age around it and have never been bothered.

    Then again there are those few, those oh so unhappy few, who have not and will probably never get used to it and will always be bothered. To those I say, cheer up: I'm working on a version of the cell phone signal blocking device that detects their signal and sends out interference. But rather than just interference, it'll turn on a tesla coil and broadcast thousands of volts through that little piece of hellspawn technology frying the little shitbox as well as blowing their inner ear through their brain and out the other ear hole, and then we can jump up and say "LET'S SEE YOU SAY 'WHAT'S UP' WHILE LOOKING AT ME BUT THEN WHEN I START TO ANSWER YOU IT TURNS OUT YOU'RE NOT TALKING TO ME, NOW, YOU FUCKING BRAIN DEAD FREAK!"

  • They're louder too. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Restil ( 31903 ) on Friday May 21, 2010 @12:21AM (#32289164) Homepage

    People talking on cellphones tend to carry their voices better than two people having a conversation amongst themselves in public. Anytime I answer the phone in public, I make a distinct effort to lower my voice, and if possible find a suitably private area, for the sole reason that I don't want to annoy the crap out of people I don't know just because I'm talking on the phone. I think if people would chat at the same volume on the phone as they do in person, it wouldn't be annoying to anyone.

    It also seems like people tend to tune out the fact that people are around them. This might somewhat explain the volume increase, but it also means that they seem to feel comfortable talking about more intimate topics. Most people would be somewhat guarded about information about where and when their kids will be, phone numbers, etc.. but I hear people blurt information out loudly enough for everyone within 30 feet to clearly make it out.


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