If you’re traveling for the holidays, you’ll be putting up with that pesky annoyance of twenty-first-century life—other people making cell phone calls. Why do they have to talk so loud, sharing the intimate—and really not very interesting—details of their personal lives? It seems from the moment the plane touches down, people start screaming into their phones.
Of course, you also have to call your family to let them know you’ve arrived. But you’re considerate of others. You use your quiet indoor voice so you won’t disturb your neighbors. Why can’t other people be more thoughtful?
She may not be as loud as you think. Most people consider cell phone conversations conducted in public places to be annoying. A common perception is that people talk louder on cell phones than they do in face-to-face interactions. Yet in controlled studies, people rate overheard cell phone conversations as more annoying than overheard face-to-face interactions, even when the sound volume was the same in both cases.
This finding led a team of British psychologists to consider the possibility that only being able to hear half of the conversation is what makes public cell phone calls so annoying. They tested this need-to-listen hypothesis by staging conversations on trains in England.
Two actors sat behind a passenger and performed a scripted conversation. In the first condition, both actors spoke in a clearly audible voice, while in the second condition only one of the actors could be heard. In the third condition, one of the actors performed the scripted conversation by cell phone with an actor in another train car.
After the one-minute conversation was over, the actors left the train car. One of the researchers then approached the targeted passenger and asked about the overheard conversation. On average, the respondents rated the conversation in which both partners could be overheard as less annoying than either the cell phone or one-audible conditions.
Public cell phone calls are annoying because we can only hear half of the conversation.
In other words, people were more annoyed when they only heard one of the conversation partners. All dialogues were controlled for sound volume. So it seems that what’s really annoying about public cell phone conversations is only being able to hear one side of the conversation.
We like to think our senses accurately report the world around us. However, a century of psychology research has taught us just how much our expectations drive our perceptions. We hear someone call our name when there’s nobody there. We don’t see our keys in an unlikely place even though we’re looking right at them.
Our species has roamed this planet for a couple hundred millennia, and we’ve likely been speaking most of that time. Overhearing conversations has been an everyday experience for humans deep into our evolutionary past. We’re also very good at tuning out background conversations—we do it every day in restaurants and other public locations.
However, hearing only half of a conversation runs counter to our expectations. We’re annoyed, and we assume it’s because the other person is talking too loud. Instead, it only seems loud because we can’t ignore it.
If you’re stuck in an airport and feeling prankish, try cell phone crashing. With your cell phone to your ear, sit or stand next to someone talking on their cell phone. Respond to whatever they say as if you were having a conversation with them, and you’ll quickly get them very annoyed. For some “candid camera” comedy, check out this cell phone crashing video on YouTube.
Cell phone crashing shows us that our public phone calls are just as annoying to other people as theirs are to us. Perhaps this understanding can lead to a little goodwill during hectic holiday travels.