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Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Phone Conversation Dissonance Posted on 10/25/2002.

Quickly: Smart Mobs discusses the discomfort that people have with overhearing telephone conversations, and cites researchers who claim this is because such conversations are "private", though taking place in a "public" place, and that this conflation of a person's "faces" makes others uneasy.

This strikes me as far too analytical. I haven't done research on this, but in my experience, the reason I don't like overhearing phone conversations is simple; it sounds wrong to my brain. I don't mind overhearing conversations between two people because I can hear both people, the conversation sounds 'complete', and I can block out the whole affair. Mobile phone conversations are dissonant in that, I'm only hearing one person, but my brain assumes conversations ought to hear two. And so, hearing talking...pause....talking...pause... I get aggravated by the pauses, by the expectation that's not being met.

10 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Devices as Display"
Next entry: "Smart Mobs mini-blog: Free-Riding in the Commons"


Are you aggravated by overhearing all one-sided phone conversations--or only cell phone conversations? I have never been bothered by being in the same room when someone is talking on a land phone. But I am major pissed off when I am sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop and am forced to listen to a self-inflated idiot carry on a cell phone conversation in a voice louder than the entire group at the next table. I am convinced that these pathetic drones want an audience for their dreary verbal posturings. If they ever had anything important to discuss with the other party, some degree of personal privacy would surely be in order.
Posted by BJMe @ 10/25/2002 10:29 PM PST [link to this comment]

What gets my goat is the cell phone conversations with the hand-free bud earpiece with the microphone that hangs on the wire clipped to the user's collar, or worse yet, hangs free. They talk louder and have the appearance of talking to themselves rather than on a cell phone.

Also, BJMe comments on the volume of cell phone conversations, which are invaribly louder, due to either static (Can you hear me now?), or due to the feeling of having to talk over those surrounding the user because the cell phone conversation are being conducted in public places.
Posted by RobbyB @ 10/27/2002 11:45 AM PST [link to this comment]

I was recently standing next to a couple of guys, one of whom was deaf, so the other one was the only one speaking his half of the conversation (of course he was signing too, but it's natural to speak while you do that). Wasn't annoying at all. And, since you've told me your theory before, I remember comparing the phenomenon to a celphone conversation. While fundamentally the same, it wasn't nearly as annoying.

I guess hearing people's cel conversation must have something to do with the tone they use. Though, I think our brains are smarter than we give them credit for -- my main opposition to hearing those conversations in a cafe is simply that the damn guy won't get up and go outside. It's a less visceral objection, but I really think that's what my brain dislikes.

Posted by Trav @ 10/27/2002 03:53 PM PST [link to this comment]

My own theory on this matter goes no deeper than this: People who talk loudly on their mobile phones in public spaces are assholes. I dislike assholes. Therefore, I dislike people who talk loudly on their mobile phones in public spaces.

(Of course, every once in a great while, I'm forced by circumstance to be one of these assholes. In these instances, I dislike myself intensely, and for a short time afterward.)
Posted by Bryce @ 10/28/2002 03:38 PM PST [link to this comment]

Another point to consider is that someone conversing on a mobile, whether in a public place or elsewhere, are not actually "there" in their own mind. I don't mean they are out of their mind, but instead that as far they are concerned they are wherever the other end of the link happens to be, which as far as they know most times is just the one person, a very private place.

You see the same phenomenom with users of mobiles in vehicles -- they become detached from their immediate surroundings. This is distinctly different from carrying on a conversation with a passenger in the same vehicle.

Analogy: they are astral travelling to perform the conversation.

So why do they raise their voice? Because they need to strengthen the connection which is the conversation, and block out the impinging reality which threatens to disconnect the astral travelling.
Posted by Eric Scheid @ 10/29/2002 12:10 AM PST [link to this comment]

Your given reason is the best I've heard for why people take issue with public mobile phone conversations. However, though that may be your reason, I think that frequently its about the offense-taker's inadequacy issues.

I can't tell you how often I encounter people who take issue with those publicly conversing on mobile phones. Invariably, the ones who take offense say something to the effect of, "Check out the size of that guy's ego."

Please. Get over yourself. If you think that someone else talking on a mobile phone really cares about whether or not you're watching, maybe you need to figure out that the whole world doesn't revolve around you.

I am one of those "mobile phone people", and let me tell you something. I could give a monkey's fart whether you notice me or not. Quite simply, I am a bonafide, jacked-in denizen of the 21st century. My technology allows me to live life at a pace and comfort level that I prefer. I don't even use a home phone.

Hobbes said that we have the right to do what we want so long as we do not impinge upon one another's space. I'll take my cell phone out of the restaurant when you quit boring me by droning on to your date about mindless drivel at the next table. Or put more simply, I'll take my cell phone out of your public space when you shut the fuck up in mine.

Until then, you ("you", metaphorically you) don't really have much ground to talk, so to speak.
Posted by Dallas K. Sneckner @ 10/30/2002 08:07 PM PST [link to this comment]

Good for you, Dallas; Not too many people would as readily acknowledge as you do that you have the expressiveness of a monkey's fart. However, instead of coming across like a jacked-in denizen of the 21st century, you sound much more like a jacking-off child of pre-puberty impotence. Most evolved persons of this, or any century, recognize that restaurants and coffee shops are historic venues for chewing and chatter. To intrude upon that atmosphere with a brandished cell phone and belligerent attitude and proclaim that those present are intruding upon your public space is putting the cart before the horse, or, in your case, the horse's ass.

You speak of yourself as one who is very proud of your rudeness, crudeness and pathetic unattractiveness, so you will be pleased to note that I also agree with your sad self-assesment.
Posted by BJMe @ 10/31/2002 12:47 AM PST [link to this comment]

hey, you should check out the Smart Mobs blog:

sounds like you'd add greatly to the mix!
Posted by jane @ 10/31/2002 01:06 AM PST [link to this comment]

My point to the vigorous BJMe is to ask rhetorically how a conversation on my cell phone is any different than your conversation at your table. If you are lucky enough to have your friends at the same table but mine are in Norway, Australia, and LA, have I any less a right to be talking to them? What salient difference does their physical presence have to do with the seemingly immutable authority to "chew and chatter" in the All-Holy Temple of Coffee Shops?

Please note that, while you seem to have taken offense to my two bits, I never personally attacked anyone. Nor will I do so now. I have too much class, friend, to much courtesy. Commentary is commentary, but personal attacks are just defensive posturing.
Posted by Dallas K. Sneckner @ 10/31/2002 07:10 AM PST [link to this comment]

Norms regarding mobile phone use seem to have a regional element, from my observations. Initiating or receiving mobile phone calls in restaurants is not regarded as rude in Helsinki, but I see people getting huffy about it in the SF Bay Area (I know, I know, people get huffy about smokers here, too, and some folks regard this as weird). Perhaps that has to do with the length of time that a critical mass of people in a region have been using mobile phones? A few social scientists have opinions about this. Some think there is a Goffman element -- people on telephone conversations are showing the wrong "face" to the world. I included a bunch of links to these sociologists, anthropologists, and folklorists in the online biblio to Smart Mobs, searchable at

Then there's the matter of not knowing any more whether people who speak to themselves in public places are crazy or not.
Posted by Howard Rheingold @ 11/01/2002 01:55 PM PST [link to this comment]

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