Why Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are So Annoying

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Group of friends using phones

The latest research shows that overhearing one-sided exchanges is more distracting than eavesdropping on a conversation between two people.

With people spending an estimated 2.30 trillion minutes on their collective cell phones in the past year, it’s no wonder that you’ve been party to an unwanted conversation or two. You know one ones — the loud exchange in the checkout line over the previous night’s festivities, or the keep-in-the-bedroom sweet nothings that, inexplicably, just have to be expressed in a restaurant within earshot of nearby diners. And the latest research shows that you can’t help yourself in picking up on these one-sided conversations.

Report in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists say that one-sided cell phone conversations are more distracting than overhearing a conversation between two people. The researchers, from the University of San Diego, recruited 164 undergraduate students to complete an assignment involving anagrams. While they were concentrating on the task, the scientists held a scripted conversation that the participants were meant to overhear about furniture shopping, a birthday party, a meeting or a date at the mall. Half of the students overheard the only half of the conversation, as a researcher conducted it over the phone, while the other half heard both sides as it happened between two of the team members in an adjacent room.

(MORE: 13 Ways to Beat Distractions and Stay Focused at Work)

Afterwards, the participants were tested on how well they performed their anagram task as well as how much of the overheard conversation they recalled. Both groups had similar scores on the anagram test, but the group that overhead the cell phone conversation was better able to remember the content of the conversation, as well as more words from the exchange, than those who eavesdropped on the two-sided conversation. The students who overheard the one-sided conversation also said it was more noticeable and distracting, and they were more surprised that the conversation took place than the students who listened to the two-sided conversation. The participants who listened to the one-sided conversation were also more likely to say the content and length of the conversation was annoying.

The researchers explain:

The annoyance that participants who overheard the one-sided conversation felt is consistent with surveys that have shown people are annoyed by other’s cell phone use in public. This annoyance may be caused by the ‘‘blurring of the distinction between the public and the private sphere.” For example, people typically have personal, not business, conversations while they use cell phones in public. Bystanders who are exposed to these personal conversations may not have much control over the situation, thereby increasing their levels of annoyance and frustration. Research has shown that bystanders in situations where they are not free to leave (for example, waiting for or using public transportation) often find cell phone conversations annoying. Other research investigating the effects of lack of control have shown that lack of perceived control can, in turn, lead to an increase in stress responses.

“This is the first study to use a ‘naturalistic’ situation to show that overhearing a cell phone conversation is a uniquely intrusive and memorable event,” says lead study author Veronica Galván, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of San Diego.

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The findings support earlier research on the distracting nature of cell phone chats, but most of those have focused on the user, and not bystanders. Studies have shown, for example, that drivers who talk on cell phones, even in hands-free mode, are as likely to get into an accident as a drunk driver because of their slower reaction time and greater chance of missing stop signs and red lights. Even pedestrians who walk and talk are more likely to be engrossed enough by their conversation to miss signs at crosswalks. “I do think some tasks would be susceptible [to impairment] because some attention is captured by the overheard conversation versus a typical two-sided conversation,” says Galván.

Hearing one side of the conversation, for example, makes it more uncertain and unpredictable, so our brains are naturally drawn to filling out the missing parts, even if we aren’t consciously trying to eavesdrop, she says.

“And that may have implications for open work settings, were people can’t help but overhear colleagues’ conversations, whether they are personal or work-related. “What I think is intriguing is that it’s possible that performance could be even greater in an environment with less one-sided conversations. In some situations, this is not feasible; people will need to communicate with co-workers and clients via telephones or impractical to implement because some work places are inherently noisy,” she says. “But if it was simple to implement and didn’t hamper communication, it might be a good idea to have some work areas in which typical conversations were promoted while one-sided phone calls were limited.”

MORE: Walk and Don’t Talk: Pedestrians Distracted By Mobile Phones

Galván also suggests that her findings could shed light on multi-tasking behaviors in general. “If people become absorbed in an overheard conversation and were paying attention to it, then performance on whatever task they were working on would suffer. Research has shown that people perform worse on each task if they try to multitask. Also, people who identify themselves as “multitaskers” perform worse on both tasks while multitasking; they may be overconfident in their abilities. In contrast, people who said they were bad at multitasking actually performed better than the self-described multitaskers,” she says.

It’s not likely that the need to multi-task, or the ubiquity of those cell phone conversations, will go away anytime soon. So the next time you overhear something about a colleague’s child’s school day, at least you can find solace in the fact that you’re not alone. It’s only human, apparently, to be annoyed.

10 comments
SamaraS.
SamaraS.

But talking on the phone has to be safer than texting (the closest alternative) when it comes to driving and walking on the street. Yes it's annoying when people are inconsiderate and talk loudly, etc. but there are actually times when talking on the phone (versus texting) is necessary due to time sensitivity or content comprehension and so on. Now people are so uncomfortable making phone calls, that not only is there no set etiquette for phone calls (yes, guidelines do exists) but when they do happen they stick out so much more

RuthG
RuthG

One element that the researcher did not take into account was the volume of the conversation. That's what makes cell phone conversation so annoying, not their existence. Most of the people commenting here don't seem to mind that people talk, only that they talk loudly and at inappropriate times (such as during dinner).

HugoMann
HugoMann

Even though I'm rarely on my phone, it doesn't really bother me if people talk in public. Everyone needs to lighten up and stop being annoyed at every minor thing that crosses their arse.

Frank__Grimes
Frank__Grimes

Attention all you cell phone loud talkers - You know who you are!  People F-ing hate you!  Talk in your INDOOR voice you inconsiderate A-Holes!  It doesn't matter if YOU can't hear the person, because you are speaking into a MICROPHONE.  A Microphone is something that amplifies sounds so you could actually whisper and the other person would hear you just fine. 

MaryWysong
MaryWysong

Not only do I not want to hear others' private phone calls, but I don't want them to know about mine, even if I'm the one on the other side that they can't hear. One of my pet peeves is the use of speaker phone. I have a mother who has zero sense of etiquette and shouts into her phone in any location. She puts me on speaker phone so that everyone around her can hear me. As soon as I realize she's done it, I tell her I'm not speaking to her anymore until she keeps the call private instead of rudely imposing on everyone around her and rudely airing my part for everyone as well. She's actually had the lack of class to not only answer, but also pull out her phone and make phone calls in the middle of dining in a restaurant. This is a 64 year old woman!

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

Even worse, a loud mouthed guy speaking a foreign language!  Yesterday a friend and I suffered through this moron talking loudly on his cell phone, so loud we could not even have our own discussion.  He was very intimidating too, we did not feel like we could say anything to him.  So we got 20 minutes of loud noise that we could not understand.  I would have enjoyed sitting at a runway watching planes better.

lenoxuss
lenoxuss

@RuthG You may think you're rejecting the study's parameters, but you're actually rejecting its conclusion.  After all, if you were right, then there would be no perceivable difference in distraction level, since both the normal and phone conversations were the same volume. But it turned out that hearing half the conversation really was worse.


It's true that people often talk too loudly on their phones, either because of a worry that the technology won't do well enough, or perhaps a subconscious thing, "I can't see this person so I know I have ro speak up for them to hear me". But I would argue that in many cases, the causation is the reverse of your hypothesis: People perceive other people's cell phone conversation to be louder because it is so annoying to them. After all, if something is ignorable (like a person-to-person conversation) then it sort of ceases to have a perceptible volume after a while.