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Annoying and distracting
Mar 21, 2013

 

It’s a safe bet that everyone has experienced the annoying and distracting cell phone user in a public setting engaged in what to the casual observer is a one-way conversation.
At airports while awaiting a flight, I have attempted to keep to myself while engaged in reading an interesting book. When one cell phone conversation  within earshot became too unbearable  and irritating, I was forced to change seats in the waiting area and return to my reading. But the respite is never long. Regardless of the seat, cell phone users seemed to surround me. When an area of seats near the check-in counter for the flight looks relatively free of chatter, someone inevitably pulls out a cell phone, dials a number and tells Aunt Sally that it was too boring to be just sitting waiting for a flight to board, so did she mind talking for a while to fill time. The blabfest is on.
A new study appearing in the scientific journal PlosOne has now quantified just how annoying and distracting one-way cell phone conversations are to bystanders. The findings were not surprising to the researchers from the University of San Diego, who “predicted one-sided conversations would be more distracting than two-sided conversations because of the unpredictable nature of one-sided conversation.” In effect, bystanders accidentally overhearing a cell phone conversation become more attentive to one-sided conversations than those involving two “live” participants.
The study was “the first to have observed cognitive effects of cell phone conversations on bystanders in a realistic context.”
In the experiment participants were lead to believe they were participating in a study examining the relationship between anagrams and reading comprehension. While the participant was completing the anagram task, the researcher left the room and the participant overheard someone engaged in a one-sided conversation on a cell phone or two people engaged in conversation within earshot while the researcher was out of the room. The participants were not informed before hand that the conversations would be part of the study.
“Similar to cell phone conversations in natural settings, the conversations in our study had an element of surprise and bystanders to the conversation decided themselves whether or not to attend to the conversation.”
The conversations were scripted and lasted about seven minutes and covered three topics: a birthday party for dad, shipping for furniture and meeting a date at the shopping mall. It may seem strange that these topics were chosen, but through personal experience, I can attest that these or similar one-sided banal conversations seem to be the norm among cell phone users in a public setting.
Upon returning, the researcher explained the real nature of the study and gave the 164 undergraduate student participants a questionnaire to gauge how they were distracted as well as a test on the anagram and reading comprehension.  
The researchers measured how well the participants did on the anagram tests, their recollection of the staged conversations and how their experiences influenced the tasks they were given.
“As predicted, participants exposed to the one-sided conversation did report being more distracted by the conversation than those who overheard the two-sided conversation,” the researcher concluded.
“The annoyance that the participants who overheard the one-sided conversation felt is consistent with surveys that show people are annoyed by other’s cell phone use in public.”
Other research has shown that people typically engage in personal, not business, conversations when they use cell phones in public.
In one instance among many, I have overheard in an airport waiting room one briefcase-carrying gentleman pull out his cell phone and talk to a friend in another city about the poor quality of the hotel room in the city he had just visited. He vowed never to return to that particular hotel, and then expressed the opinion that hotels were too expensive for the infrequent use made of them when he was in town for meetings. The nature, nor importance of the meetings, was never brought up, since the conversation was only about that “darn” — the conversationalist used a less reader-friendly expletive — hotel and hotels in general.
“Bystanders who are exposed to these personal conversations may not have much control over the situation, thereby increasing their levels of annoyance and frustration,” according to the research  article in PlosOne, The Effects of Cell Phone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders, by Veronica V. Galvan, Rosa S. Vessal and Matthew T. Gilley.
The researchers cited example enhanced frustration and annoyance, such as awaiting public transportation and not having an option to leave. Would you rather hear some numbskull talk on a cell phone about her next date or leave the scene and wait for another bus coming in 30 minutes in -30°C weather? 
As researchers have determined, bystanders have a tendency to listen more closely to one-sided conversations because they attempt to fill in the gaps in the conversation, taking the place of the person at the other end of the line.
“Unintended eavesdropping on cell phone calls may be because the content of the conversation is unpredictable,” according to Rosa Vessal (Forbes magazine article by Alice G. Walton on the study). “Not knowing where the conversation is heading is what makes cell phone calls more distracting.”
In addition, people pay more attention as they reveal oddly personal information, which against the backdrop of public or professional setting, is especially hard to ignore, Veronica Galvan told Walton.
Before there were cell phones, people reserved such delicate topics for home phone calls, or at least lowered their voices while engaged in such conversations in public.
But not anymore. 
Cell phones have apparently empowered individuals to discuss the most intimate details of their lives in public, and they don’t lower their voices while talking to the person on the other end of the line.
The researchers concluded that their “results have implications for workplace environments, transportation hubs and other public areas. Further studies should explore how attention and cognitive effects of cell phone use vary as a function of conversation and content. Additionally, it will be important to determine what type of tasks are subject to performance impairments by overheard cell phone conversations.”
In the meantime, my advice to cell phone users in a public setting is to, “Take it outside, buddy!”