My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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I want to evolve to not hear the cell phone

Whenever I’m in a public space where folks are blabbing away on their phones, I want to scream. Trains, cafes, busses… they all drive me batty. I’m dreading the day in which cell phones are viable on planes. Or when VOIP isn’t blocked. When I’m forced to listen to half of a conversation, I start fuming. First, I mentally grumble about how rude the person is. But then I start berating myself, lamenting my age, and wondering if I were younger or from a different culture if half-conversations wouldn’t drive me so utterly insane.

Years ago, I read a study (that I now can’t find) about why half-conversations are so disruptive. Your brain is pretty good about tuning out conversations in a restaurant, but it sucks at tuning out just half of a conversation. Y’see – your brain wants to fill in the other half. It worries that it’s supposed to respond and so it listens even when you tell it not to. You can’t just close your ears and blasting other sounds into them may not achieve the desired serenity either, especially if you’re like me and the urge to dance kicks in with the music.

This all makes sense for those of us whose brains stabilized pre-mobile phones. But I can’t help but wonder if this is changing. If you grow up in a world where half-conversations are everywhere, does your brain cope with it better? Does it learn to tune it out? If you grow up in a culture where everyone is always rattling on loudly in public, can you tune out noise better than if you grew up in a culture where silence is more than norm? I’m always fascinated by cross-cultural events involving people from more quiet cultures (say Japan, Finland) and those from louder ones (say Russia, Israel). Do these cultural differences affect your ability to tune out noise?

More importantly, can I be retrained? Can I evolve to not hear those blasted half-conversations? I know that I can learn to tune out car noise after a few weeks in a new apartment. What will it take for me to stop fuming? I feel far too old and crotchety before my time on this one.

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21 comments to I want to evolve to not hear the cell phone

  • You know who can be retrained? Americans. Cell phones are nowhere near as obnoxious when I’ve been living in France or Switzerland. Why? Because people use them politely. They talk quietly, they go outside if necessary, they don’t yammer on about their yeast infections or stock portfolios so everyone within 20 feet can hear.

    I’ve often thought cell phones could train people to talk more quietly if they just rebroadcast your voice a bit louder in the earpiece.

  • Hapto

    Well, there is always the Wave Bubble.
    http://p2pfoundation.net/Fried,_Limor

    and the pleasant card produced by the Society for Hand Held Hushing (shhh).
    http://www.coudal.com/shhh.php

    🙂

  • mydhili

    well the fun is in imagining the other half of the conversation 😀 but then again, I come from a different age and culture 🙂
    However, I don’t completely agree with the argument that phone habits have got to do with culture. Mobile’s became a part of everyday around the world more or less around the same time… so i guess we are all evolving mobile etiquette at the same pace.

  • Interesting that you mentioned that. I’m normally good about tuning out other people’s conversation (especially since when I’m en route somewhere I am normally listening to music) but there was one situation recently where I couldn’t.

    I was in a book store and there were three people speaking loudly on cell phones and I think my brain kept trying to engage because they were all walking in the same area, but they weren’t speaking to each other AND they were speaking three different languages (English, Korean, and what sounded like Dutch, though I could be wrong on that last one) on their half conversations.

    I couldn’t concentrate until two of them left. Weird.

  • The study you were referring to may have been the one by Andrew Monk at York University.

    The citation is:
    Monk, A.F., Carroll, J., Parker, S., Blythe, M. (2004) Why are mobile phones annoying? Behaviour and Information Technology, 23, 33-41.

    I couldn’t find it online, but Jakob Nielsen describes it here.

  • I work in an open office where conversations swirl around me. On some occasions 2 or three people will have a conference call on a speakerphone at someone’s desk. After a while you can tune it out some.

    For some reason some people talk louder on a cell phone than in normal conversation.

  • I imagine personal preference must play a large role. I’m 10 years older than you, but I’ve got a different mix of public, auditory things that distract or annoy me.

    I know that radio drives me crazy. In fact, my aversion to radio drives my friends crazy. I am uniquely sensitive to radio, especially news or talk radio (music on the radio is bad, but not quite as bad). Working in small, informal offices, I’ve occasionally annoyed co-workers, begging them to turn off their radios. For me, it is almost freakish that the voice of a man or woman is just 15 feet away, talking to me, and yet I can not talk back. Not being able to talk back to someone who is talking to me is odd. The news is the worst, if they happen to talk about something that I happen to know something about. I can not concentrate, or work, if a radio is on.

    For some reason, cell phone conversations don’t bother me nearly as much. My brain knows and accepts that the person is not talking to me. Sometimes I have the curiosity of a journalist, I am interested by other people’s private lives. Eaves dropping on other people’s conversation’s, in a public space, can be fascinating. Even if the conversation is somewhat ordinary – a mother talking on the phone with her daughter about the daughter’s child, a man talking to a friend about a job he is thinking of taking – the more ordinary, the more interesting. It is fun to occasionally get a glimpse into the lives of people outside of my social network.

    And for whatever reason, I daydream very easily, so when I’m bored and I want to tune the world out, I can usually do that easily.

  • I’ve been carrying foam earplugs in my pocket for almost 12 years now. They make discretion fails inaudible.

    brendan b brown
    wheatus.com

  • Steve

    At one time a few years back I figured out that cell phones provide a great prop for what is known formally as “guerilla theater” or “street theater” and less formally as “mindf*cking strangers in public”.

    The basic gimmick is the imaginary cell-phone conversation. Two variations are possible – one using a physical cell phone as a prop, and one using an imaginary phone. The creative part is to come up with completely outrageous story lines that start somewhat believably, and gradually drift imperceptibly into the surreal.

    I’ve never actually tried this, because I don’t have the personality to carry it off. But then I never did prank phone calls when I was young either – which in some ways is an analogous activity. I think it can be great fun – I have nothing but respect for those brave pioneers of 40-50 years ago who would call perfect strangers to ask “Is your refrigerator running”. But I’m not a player – I’d rather watch and instigate 🙂

    In that spirit, I invite anyone who is so inclined to take out their phone (real or imagined) in the next appropriately public space and liven up somebody’s boring existence.

    Mood – playful.

    -Steve

  • I find these half conversations so irritating that I always try to travel in the “quiet coach” on a train and will happily point out the “don’t use your mobile phone in here” notices just in case some rude person can’t read! In the street in, somehow, not so bad as I can either stop and look in a shop window till someone has passed by if they’re travelling in the same direction as me or not really notice when they’re coming towards me since the contact time is so short.
    Annoys the h–l out of me though to hear bad language in the street even if it is directed at someone other than me – and that is, I think, a direct result of aging.

  • … and there’s always the approach of supplying the missing half of the conversation, aloud, at about the same volume that they’re delivering their half. Lots of opportunity for creative amusement, and apparently you’ll also be helping the world by making it easier for everyone else to tune out the conversation! 🙂

  • I hear you. And Nelson commented on the rudeness of Americans and how loud some of them talk on the phone. Here I am at Memorial Park, trying to enjoy the few days one can sit outside without sweating to death (Houston, TX) and here’s a guy who wants everyone outside to hear him – even the golfers several tees away 😉 – and I could care less about the leash his wife has around his neck or why he doesn’t like Facebook or Twitter. After about 30 minutes of that and no one is turning around to listen to him, he finally quieted down. What’s a person to do when they’re enjoying nature, enjoying communicating on their laptop, and someone doesn’t know how to talk in their inside/outside voice? Am I attracting this or what? Loud talking people seem to follow me around 😉

  • Magic in the Air by James Katz that offers several observations as to why half-conversations on the mobile are often more irritating to others than a conversation between two co-present individuals.

    One points to ekistics (human settlements). People generally are uncomfortable in urban spaces, and the presence of others is comforting. When those “others” are on their mobile phones (no longer psychologically available), the third-wheel’s sense of protection is denied.

  • I played in rock and roll bands in the 80s. The cops would come when the neighbors got fed up, so I’ve got history with this noise thing. But since then, I’ve lived in Europe and out in the wilderness and as a result have become more sensitized to my environment. Location, location, location.
    Like Brenda, I carry around ear plugs, silicon ones, (like being underwater) just in case I can’t cope with loud Americans. And my Ipod has become a shut-it-out device more often than I care to consider.
    But I too think it’s a personal thing and a culture’s relationship to space. I mean we do have lots of space, in the States, even in our cities.
    A band practicing, doesn’t bother me :), even a bad singer or a beginning violinist are ok, and I could live next to the freeway and tune it out. Certain kinds of people-generated noise get to me. It’s got that personal space invading my personal space feeling. Just this morning at 7 am some guy was sitting on my apartment steps yelling away on his phone, on speaker, so I could also hear the distance voice of his counterpart.

    If they allow phones on planes, I’ll complain. I already think there should be a people-with-young-kids section.

    More to the social implications though…when you don’t have societal mores, etiquette or legislation, the burden of social policing falls on individuals. I’ve become generally more aggressive living in the States again as a result. I have to deal with a lot of stuff, I don’t think I should have to deal with and so I don’t feel socially obligated to be “polite” when confronting someone’s rudeness. Evil stares and rolling your eyes can be effective. And this morning, I opened my front door and yelled annoyed “Hey would you mind not sitting on my steps and talking so loud, geezus.”

  • Pat

    I agree with you so much on this issue! I usually don’t answer my cell phone in public and let it go to my voice mail. The only time I answer if it is my parents (my dad turns 90 this year) and since his stroke over a year ago, I tend to worry that something happened. Once they tell me everything is okay, I ask if I can call them back later. Not only do I not want to subject others to my conversation but it is just downright rude! And if people do feel like they need to have a conversation, I would love to get in their face and tell them to stop yelling and use their indoor voices! 🙂

  • Johnny Zircon

    One thing to remember is that studies have shown (I read up on this when campaigning about noise from airports) that while you may tune the noise out with your conscious mind, your body continues to exhibit the symptoms of noise generated stress, and that stress steadily does you damage.

    Avoid noise for a quiet life 😉

  • I wonder if when cell phones are allowed on airplanes, we’ll have the option to pay a $15 charge to sit in the “cell phone free” zone? I think it might be the best $15 I ever spent. I think the cell phone section should be in the four rows nearest to the bathrooms. 🙂

    I do think there’s a strong tie into generational differences and cultural differences in phone usage. Many of the most offensive cell phone users I’ve seen aren’t young people, but middle aged (and older) users. From my experience, in public places, many young people either opt to text or will return the call later. There are of course many exceptions to this observation.

    I also wonder if an individual’s competency in navigating their mobile device makes a difference? Someone who is comfortable texting or emailing from their phone might be more likely to ignore an incoming call or opt to respond to it in a quieter, private way than talking outloud.

    The one sided conversation piece also interests me. I need to go read up on it. For me I think it might be that I imagine the other side of the conversation more intriguing than it ever is in real life, so my brain is working through the possibilities coming from the other side of the line.

  • Solomon Freilich

    Huh… I’m 16 & I kind of get the feeling that teens will text on the bus & not make phone calls, and most of the time the somebody making a phone call is an adult. Sure…young people might be learning to block out half conversations but they also might be more courteous – or just like texting…so then again… maybe not.

    I think one reason people talk louder on the cell than they would otherwise is because of ambient noise: ambient noise is bothering you, and you don’t know what the effect of it is on the other end of the line, so you talk louder just in case. (I admit I’ve done it myself, and I felt guilty about it cuz it was a waste of phone time anyway.)

    I don’t think, though, that you can really limit phone conversations to inside the home. What if a teen wants to have a private conversation (that he’d rather not have his parents overhear)? I’d recommend doing it on a walk with not too many passersby, though. *but I doubt my own opinion there: I have access to that sort of walk, but others might not, so who am I to say that?

    Whoever said cheers to prank calling, etc. really makes me sick. *Steve. — I don’t get a very good impression of Steve.

    Overall I think you’re overreacting, though I understand where you’re coming from. But then I looked at the date on this post and realized it was the same date and then figured I really shouldn’t bug you for overreacting because as a hardcore blogger it’s your job to overreact.

  • Brad

    In a small space I am the same way when comes to be annoyed by cell phone conversations. However, it only bothers me if it is someone I do not know. When I am working in the office at our Chicago Web Design Company I am normally not bothered when a co-worker is having conversation next to me, personal or business.

  • Sky

    I love Solomon’s comment – yes the younger set is texting. And those of us in the older set who have smartphones are also texting or emailing. In fact the reception on my iPhone is SO BAD that I vastly prefer texting and email to a terrible hissing “voice” call.

    I also think that people shout on the phone when reception is bad and they are unconsciously trying to compensate for the bad connection even though shouting doesn’t help at all (used to help in my Dad’s day on those old phones, but not on a digital cell phone).

    (BTW, Danah, the TypeKey login option for comment authentication is broken.)

  • greg

    Some loud talkers are very sensitive about these types of public issues; hold your fingers in your ears while staring at them or shush them to trigger appropriate behavior.