Why Cell Phone Conversations Are Annoying

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.

Music: David Byrne :: Wheezing

6 Replies to “Why Cell Phone Conversations Are Annoying”

  1. I like Ian Hickson’s take:

    “On my way to the office I passed an old lady who appeared to be muttering to herself, and it struck me: I can no longer tell the difference between insane people, and people on hands-free mobile phones. Literally. I have no idea if she was on the phone or not.”

  2. 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.

    Well, assuming that the route to this would be via Darwinian natural selection, it’s only gonna happen once us mobile users start killing the moany gits who complain about one-way conversations.

  3. Dan, not us vs. them : Almost everyone is a cell phone user (including me) and almost everyone finds it annoying to be near one-way conversations. We’re just not evolved to digest them in nearby air space.

    If you’re not annoyed by them, then you have a specially formed brain.

  4. I wasn’t suggesting us vs. them… well, OK, I was, but only facetiously. I was just pointing out that for natural selection to do its thang, there have to be lots of deaths first.

    Actually, I’m very rarely annoyed by it myself. I don’t like it when people hold very loud one-way conversations, but at normal levels (or at least what my misguided brain deems to be normal, which is probably actually a whisper) I’ve no problem with mobile phone conversations (get to overhear many of them on the train between Sheffield and London)

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