Why is it annoying to be in the presence of someone else’s cell phone conversation, especially on a train or other confined area? If pressed, most of us would probably say that “people talk too loud” on cell phones, which makes the calls more annoying than being in the proximity of a two-person conversation.
But the affect is actually more subtle than that. Andrew Monk and colleagues from the University of York did a pretty careful study, rating the impressions of standers-by after they had been surreptitiously exposed to cell phone and normal conversations at both normal and loud volumes.
Turns out it’s not so much the volume of cell phone conversations (though that’s certainly a factor) but the fact that a person is standing there talking apparently to no one. Psychologically, we just can’t filter this into the background as easily as we can a two-person conversation, which we (I’m surmising here) have evolved for millions of years to be in the proximity of. This of course raises the question of how many millions of years it will take for us to regard nearby cell conversations as perfectly normal.
Clearly, mobile phones score far worse than face-to-face conversations, confirming much anecdotal evidence. As we might expect, loud conversations score worse than quieter conversations. It’s striking, however, that mobile-phone conversations are judged more negatively than loud conversations. Participants even said that the volume of the mobile-phone conversations was more annoying than those that occurred face-to-face, even though the volume was the same, and was controlled by objective measures.