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Tyger Latham, Psy.D.
Tyger Latham Psy.D.

Why Are Cell Phones So Annoying?

Listening to someone else's cell phone conversation is universally annoying

Yesterday was a scorcher of a day with temperatures approaching 100 degrees in the nation's capital. As temperatures rise, so too do people's tempers. While Washington is generally regarded as a pretty civil town, during the summer months people become noticeably more agitated.

The feeling of annoyance is a universal emotion but one that is often misunderstood. While emotions like anger and love have been studied by behavioral scientists for years, far less is known about what causes a person to feel annoyed.

Last week I was interviewed by WUSA-9 reporter, Ken Molestina, for a story he was producing on the "Top 5 Annoyances in Washington." He asked me about my own personal pet peeves and here's what I shared with him:

1. Having to listen to other people's cell phone conversations.
2. Delays on the Metro, particularly when the MTA neglects to provide updates.
3. Being stuck in traffic on the Beltway.
4. Rude people, period.
5. DC tourists who take one step off the Metro, stop in their tracks and then proceed to orient themselves, thereby, creating a bottleneck of commuters behind them.

The last one is a personal annoyance, but the first four are likely to resonate with anyone who lives or works in Washington, DC. In fact, being subjected to another person's cell phone conversation is so universally annoying, everyone can relate to.

What is it exactly that people find so annoying about cell phones? According to Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman, authors of Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us, the reason cell phone conversations are so grating to most of us is because they are in fact "half conversations," in which your brain tries "to predict what the person is going to say next."

According to these authors, researchers have shown that we innately try to make sense of our environments and for this reason we are naturally drawn to situations that do not fit nicely into our cognitive schema. In the case of cell phone conversations, the listener is only privy to half of the conversation and so the mind automatically fills in the dialogical gaps. We're generally pretty good at tuning out random stimuli but have far more difficulty ignoring those stimuli that are steady and stable. When there is a somewhat predictable pattern--like, for example, a cell phone conversation--it grabs our attention and we have difficulty tuning it out.

The second aspect of what generally makes something annoying is that it is by definition unpleasant. However, unpleasantness is a highly subjective experience that varies from person to person. This is the reason why some people become incensed when stuck in traffic, while others don't seem to mind at all.

Overheard cell phone conversations point to a third and final element of what makes something annoying: the certainty that something will end, but the uncertainty of when that will be. To be annoyed requires some unpleasantness but it's the knowledge that the unpleasantness will soon come to an end that gives a particular situation its edge and sense of urgency.

So, what is a person to do if they find themselves subjected to someone else's cell phone conversation? First, it's important to remember that annoyances are a part of life and that they eventually come to an end. With that said, there are proactive steps a person can take to address an annoyance. In the case of that really obnoxious train passenger blabbing away on his cell phone, sometimes just bringing it to his attention is enough to make it stop. Or, alternatively, sometimes it's just easier to get up and walk away from the situation. And what about those really annoying individuals--the one who continue to talk despite your polite request that they take their cell phone conversations elsewhere--well, there's always the option of picking up your phone, calling someone and then proceeding to talk even louder than the person sitting next to you. Admittedly, it's a bit childish but sometimes being annoying is all you can do.

To see the WUSA-9 interview, click here.


Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.

About the Author
Tyger Latham, Psy.D.

Dr. Tyger Latham is a clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in men's issues, trauma, and LGBT concerns.

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