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Why it’s so annoying to overhear someone’s cellphone conversation

March 23, 2013 at 12:38 PM ET

A commuter talks on her cellphone in New York, Sept. 23, 2011. In a study published March 13, 2013 in the journal PLoS One, scientists found t...
CALEB FERGUSON / New York Times via Redux Pictures
A commuter talks on her cellphone in New York, Sept. 23, 2011. In a study published March 13, 2013 in the journal PLoS One, scientists found that overheard cellphone conversations are far more distracting and annoying than a dialogue between two people nearby.

When LifeHacker asked you about your biggest cellphone annoyances a while back, one of your 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 cell phone conversations, and one that many of you echoed is that people tend to talk louder when they're talking in public. In turns out that's not entirely the case:

Because it is next to impossible to tune out a nearby cellphone 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 cellphone 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 | The New York Times

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