Overheard Cellphone Conversations: Annoying Or Good Fun?

by Gaurav Kheterpal on September 24, 2010

Cellphones are meant to make our lives better, but they don’t always do so. Apart from radiation and health hazards, cellphone etiquette (or rather the lack of it) is fast emerging as a major concern worldwide. As civilized humans, is it a natural tendency for us to be irritated on overhearing mobile phone conversations, especially in crowded public places?

Or is it good fun to get a sneak peek into other’s personal or professional lives by listening to stranger cellphone conversations? Most people would say that it’s a matter of personal choice. Is it?

A new study published in the journal Psychological Science raises an interesting point. It suggests that presented with half a conversation, our brains feel compelled to fill in the blanks. Lauren Emberson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, carried exhaustive research on public mobile conversations and concluded that they are often distracting because people usually overhear just one side of a conversation, called a “halfalogue.”

In the past, there have been several similar reports which have indicated a strong need for regulating cellphone etiquette. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done. Laura Emberson came up with the idea to investigate the impact of such half-heard public conversations while traveling on a bus and realized that it was impossible for her to concentrate if someone in her vicinity was engaged in a cellphone conversation. Her research indicates that people make more sense of full dialogues and ignore it, as opposed to halfalogues. Part-heard conversations are less predictable, so the brain is distracted by it. 

Emberson believes that it’s all about predictability. Human brains don’t like to be uncertain about what’s going on in our vicinity. Halfalogues are secretive, and therefore they are more distracting.

Of course, the broader picture is about cellphone etiquettes. Is it rude for people to talk loudly in a mall, theatre or any other public place for that matter? Of course, it is. Being in a crowded bus or train, do you have a choice not to overhear people when they are hanging over your shoulder? Unless you make a conscious effort not to listen to such conversations, it is natural that you will hear them.

As Scientific American puts it,

“Talking on the phone when behind the wheel impairs driving performance; even overhearing the cell phone conversations of passengers could have the same dangerous attention-shifting effect.”

What’s your opinion on cellphone etiquettes? Do you think there’s a need for regulating public conversations or will any such measures lead to an obstruction to the so-called freedom of speech. Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below this post.

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Written by: Gaurav Kheterpal. www.digitcom.ca >. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com > by: RSS>, Twitter >, Identi.ca >, or Friendfeed >

{ 1 comment }

Jordan Richardson September 24, 2010 at 6:16 am

Well of course you can’t regulate how loud people talk on cell phones legally unless you put some sort of noise pollution-type law in place. I think the social contract most of us share serves as enough of a regulation, much like the classic over-the-shoulder glare usually shuts loudmouths up in movie theatres and the eye-rolling head turn does the trick failing that.

What I think it really interesting is that people tend to treat cell phone conversations differently than, say, a couple talking loudly in a public place. In cases where both participants in a particular conversation are physically present, they are, nine times out of 10, less likely to be “shushed” by others. On a cell phone, though, I think the “shushing” is far more likely.

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