You're sitting in a public lounge area, perhaps hoping to catch up on your reading, an assignment, or a document you need for work the next day. There's exactly one open seat left, so you grab it, only to realize that the person sitting next to you is having a loud, animated conversation on her cell phone. Thinking she must be ending the call soon, you find to your dismay that your seatmate has no such intention. Hard as you try, it's impossible not to tune her out. You learn that her sister-in-law has diabetes, her best friend's husband is cheating on his wife, and her mother is thinking of selling her home but can't get a high enough offer.
Now let's imagine that you were standing in line next to this woman while waiting to check out at the drug store. You might exchange a friendly glance, but it's highly unlikely that she'd spill these personal details to you. Never would you know that she's got all these family problems nor would you learn about her mother's financial predicament. She'd never share these personal secrets with a complete stranger unless that stranger happened to be within earshot of her "private" phone call.
Clearly, people feel that talking on the cell phone somehow isolates them from the people in their immediate vicinity. The deeper they get into their conversations, the more removed they feel from those who are physically present and the more engaged they become in the conversation itself. Unfortunately for them, and for their unwilling listeners, they are anything but isolated. Their public cell phone behavior is annoying, and perhaps a bit foolish (given that the wrong third party may overhear the conversation), but there’s no ill intent. You would most likely be right in concluding that the behavior is inconsiderate but it’s not motivated by any kind of ulterior motive.
In other situations, however, public cell phone talkers may enjoy being in the conversational limelight. They want to look busy, important, and in charge. Their public conversations are filled with overstated stories of their success, either real or implied. They let everyone around them know how well their sales are going or how many demands they experience in their high-level job. Perhaps their conversation is filled with boss-like commands in which they issue instructions to the person on the other end of the phone telling the other person to sell this or buy that. You might suspect that rather then being oblivious to their surroundings, these cell phone talkers relish sounding important, and are playing to what they believe is an impressionable audience.
Public cell phone use has all kinds of possible psychological meanings. For some it’s a reflection of a discrepancy between their attitudes and behavior. They know that it’s rude and annoying to engage in this behavior, but they rationalize it by believing that it’s necessary due to some special situation that is affecting them. In fact, it’s entirely plausible that people need to be on their cell phones and have no choice but to do so while they’re in a public place.
However, the habitual public cell phone talkers who seem to be egged on by an audience to sound important, busy, and successful may be acting more out of narcissism than out of lack of social awareness. They like having the attention, even if it’s negative, of those around them. Public cell phone behavior is a form of performance art.
Now that you know what might be behind public cell phone use, the question becomes why everyone finds it so annoying (even those who engage in it). Perhaps you’ve heard the research, now several years old, showing that people find cell phone conversations they overhear to be more distracting than in-person conversations between two or more people. Reported by Cornell University psychologist Lauren Emberson and colleagues (2010), this research suggests that we find public cell phone behavior to be annoying because it’s so intrusive into our consciousness. The reasoning goes something like this. When you hear a live conversation, you know what everyone is saying because it’s all there for you to hear. When you hear a cell phone conversation, you don’t know what the other person is saying, so your ever-curious brain tries to fill in the missing pieces. This takes more mental energy than simply hearing both sides of the conversation, leaving less for you to allocate to whatever else you might be doing such as that book you're reading or assignment you're trying to complete.
This provides part of the answer to the question of what’s so rude about public cell phone behavior, but clearly not all of it. A live conversation can also be distracting if it’s loud enough or if the conversation partners are talking about subject matter that interests you or, on the other hand, that you find stupid and meaningless. You may be sitting on the bus while two people behind you swap endless and trivial stories punctuated by loud bursts of laughter or exclamations. It’s pretty difficult to tune some overheard in-person conversations out, no matter how hard you try.
As this example illustrates, maybe loudness has something to do with what we find so annoying about overheard conversations. They’re hard not to overhear but they also communicate a lack of respect by the speakers for the rights of the people around them to enjoy an interruption-free trip, commute, or wait.
Investigating just this possibility regarding public cell phone use, Michigan State sociologists Jonathan Forma and Stan Kaplowitz compared perceptions of rudeness by listeners exposed to cell phone and in-person conversations. Prior to examining perceived rudeness, however, they wondered whether cell phone users actually might talk at louder levels than do in-person communicators. You’ve probably experienced this situation yourself. Somehow you imagine that your cell phone lacks sufficient sensitivity to the human voice to transmit it accurately, so you speak into it at louder volume than you would if you were speaking in person.
Forma and Kaplowitz conducted a naturalistic study in which they measured the actual decibel levels (loudness) of conversations conducted in public places either face-to-face or over the phone. Controlling for gender, they found that, in fact, people on cell phones spoke 1.6 times as loud as did people chatting face-to-face. Not a large amount, but noticeable.
When it came to rating the rudeness of the two types of conversation, however, listeners exposed to cell phone conversations compared to two-person face-to-face conversations rated the overheard cell phone speakers as being ruder. Forma and Kaplowitz found, interestingly, that two-person overheard conversations in which only one partner could clearly be heard were rated as even ruder than cell phone conversations. It’s possible that in these situations, listeners felt the inaudible conversation partner should have spoken up, given that it’s annoying to be speaking to someone who never makes herself or himself heard (think of Seinfeld’s “quiet talker”).
Under normal circumstances, however, speaking in public on your cell phone will lead you to be seen as rude by the people around you. As long as you don’t mind offending those in your immediate vicinity, then, by all means go ahead and keep up your public cell phone use. Most of us would rather not be perceived as rude, though. Whatever your reasons for engaging in public cell phone use, whether it’s to feel more important or because you think you’ve got a good rationale, the study’s results have a clear implication.
Keep your cell phone use as private as possible. You may not have an alternative to calling someone on your cell phone while you’re in the presence of others. Modes of public transportation often are late, lines at checkout counters can get so long as to delay you from meeting someone, or perhaps you get a call that you absolutely must take then and there. In these cases, show that you care about the people around you by keeping your voice low, and your conversations short. Recognize that you have a listening audience, and rather than try to impress them with your importance, impress them with your courtesy. You can say to your conversation partner that you can only speak for a short time (this will be reassuring news to those sharing your public space), and then stick to that promise.
Cell phone conversations aren’t inherently rude, but all have the potential to become offensive. Keep yours short, quiet, and respectful of others, and you’ll help to contribute to a quieter and more polite cellular world.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Emberson, L. L., Lupyan, G., Goldstein, M. H., & Spivey, M. J. (2010). Overheard cell-phone conversations: When less speech is more distracting. Psychological Science, 21, 1383-1388. doi: 10.1177/0956797610382126
Forma, J., & Kaplowitz, S. A. (2012). The perceived rudeness of public cell phone behaviour. Behaviour & Information Technology, 31, 947-952. doi: 10.1080/0144929x.2010.520335