Why Overhearing Someone's Mobile Phone Conversation Is Annoying

When we talked about our biggest mobile phone annoyances last year, one of the biggest complaints was overhearing people's phone conversations. The New York Times takes a look at why we find that so annoying.

The basic reason we're so irritated when we overhear a conversation is because the conversation hijacks our cognitive functions — it's a distraction that we can't do anything about and we can't get away from:

If you only hear one person speaking, you're constantly trying to place that part of the conversation in context," Dr. Galván said. "That's naturally going to draw your attention away from whatever else you're trying to do."

It is also a control thing, Dr. Galván and her colleagues said. When people are trapped next to a one-sided conversation - known nowadays as a "halfalogue" - their anger rises in the same way it does in other situations where they are not free to leave, like waiting for a train.

The other big reason we find this so annoying is because we're drawn to the strangeness of a one-sided conversation. We want to complete that puzzle and figure out what they're talking about. Everything they say is surprising, and you can't predict what's going to happen next. Basically, our brain is drawn to a conversation, because it's too strange to tune out.

Another odd detail about our annoyance with mobile phone conversations is that we find people talk louder when they're talking in public. It turns out that's not entirely the case:

Because it is next to impossible to tune out a nearby mobile phone conversation, people subjected to them often believe — incorrectly — that the talker is being abnormally loud... On average, commuters thought the mobile phone talkers were louder, even when they were not... "When you stare at a light, it seems brighter," said Dr. Emberson. "And when you can't not pay attention to a noise, it seems louder."

Unfortunately, you can't really do much to ease the annoyance of an overheard mobile phone conversation. In many cases, you can't even leave the room. That said, knowing is half the battle, and hopefully people will stop having those inane, drawn out conversations on the bus.

Cellphones as a Modern Irritant [New York Times]

Picture: rob zand/Flickr


    Or you could simply train yourself to tune out and not care.

    Not sure why this is so difficult for a lot of people...

      Or you could simply train yourself to not be a rude arsehole.

      Not sure why this is so difficult for a lot of people...

        not sure what exactly about speaking on the phone means being a rude asshole.

        certainly I never have that opinion of anyone who chooses to speak on the phone in a public place, because I'm a rational, reasonable person.

          No, you just don't understand how your behaviour effects other people; either that or you don't care in which case you're hardly rational or reasonable.

      Honestly, I'm not sure how it's so easy for a lot of people to tune out...

    That's one of the best parts of riding the tube in London; underground = no mobile reception.

      That used to be the case with the City Circle, but now there's fully 3G in a lot of places - so I can distract myself with Facebook while half listening to other conversations :(

        I've been thinking about a solution for this, and then I remembered that 'sound gun' the Japanese invented which bounces back the sound it hears with a slight delay. Apparently this makes it very difficult to speak coherently, as it confuses the brain.

        Perhaps this is the app we need.

    Yep, this has been known for years. That your brain does far more work in an attempt to grok a convo it doesn't hear all of, than it does to ignore a convo it can hear all of and therefore can easily tune out. It's true for whispered convo as well, which is why it drives me nuts in the workplace. I constantly want to scream out, "Whaddidyou SAY? Heard mumbling, couldn't hear the words!".

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