Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are Particularly Annoying To Bystanders, But Why

Loud coversation on a cell phone

Last year people collectively spent 2.3 trillion minutes on their cell phones, the majority of which was done in public. A year is only made of about half a million minutes, so a cooperative investment of that magnitude reflects the ugly truth that our culture is cell phone obsessed.

With advancements to the technology we multitask watching television, searching the web, checking our email, relaying a text, and talking all at the same time on a tiny little device we take everywhere.

The annoying habits of nomophibic cell phone users persist and baffle as they will rudely talk and text just about anywhere.

People will chat in their cars, while dining out in restaurants, and on average one in five people will drop their phone in a toilet.

Public cell phone use has become something of a common nuisance. Some of us have friends who are particularly notorious for fiddling with their phones as though they were vital appendages, tinkering and texting between bites of food and conversation when going out to spend face time with one another. Yet most of their time is spent with their face focused on the tiny, hypnotic glow emitting from the phone’s screen.

Nearly everyone has had the experience of overhearing a one-sided exchange, which according to science published in the journal PLOS ONE, is more annoying than eavesdropping a live conversation between two people.

The majority of research is often focused on the user and less on the direct effects of cell phone use on bystanders.

Unabashedly and inexplicably, individuals will express audacious thoughts, oblivious of the goings-on around them. They’ve grown accustomed to ignoring the scowls and glares of bystanders within earshot who aren’t interested in hearing unwanted details of your phone call while in line at the store or sitting in the movie theater.

And as discourteous as it is to vociferously yammer intimate little nothings into a phone while in public, many of us are absolutely (hypocritically) guilty of it. We’re also typically incapable of completely tuning out the one-sided conversation, disturbingly intrigued perhaps.


Researchers from the University of San Diego in California recruited 164 undergraduate students to complete an assignment involving anagrams. The intent was to concentrate on the task assigned, during which the scientists held a pre-scripted conversation. The participants were meant to overhear about furniture shopping, a birthday party, a meeting, or a date at the mall.

Half of the students were only able to overhear one side of the conversation, as a researcher conducted it over the phone. The other half of students heard both sides as it happened between two of the team members in another room.

After participants were tested on how well they performed their anagram task. They were also asked to recall details of the overheard conversation to assess cognitive retention.


Anagram test scores were similar in both groups. Interestingly the group which overhead the cell phone conversation was better able to remember the content of the conversation, as well as more words from the exchange, than those who eavesdropped on the two-sided in person conversation.

Students subjected to the one-sided conversation noted the event as more apparent, distracting, and annoying whereas those witnessing the two-sided conversation reported little to no distraction, feeling the exchange was ordinary.

Analysts explained the aggravation as an instinctual reaction, given people feel the edges of public and private lines are blurred when overhearing private conversations in public. Most cell phone conversation tends to be less business and more personal. Therefore, strangers are exposed to the intimate details of a personal conversation with little control over the situation in circumstances where they are unable to escape the immediate vicinity, thereby becoming frustrated.

Additionally, the brain is challengingly hardwired (subconsciously) to fill in the missing gaps in one-sided conversations as they are at times unpredictable verbal puzzles. Thus even if those within earshot are not consciously trying to eavesdrop, the brain is instinctually drawn to.

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