Dave Trautman, an independent multimedia training consultant from EncycloMEDIA Ltd. in Edmonton, Canada, writes:
I'm not one to defend the intrusion of cellphone use into daily life, nor am I inclined to criticize casual and bystander research because I've used it before. I did want to point something out which might be helpful in providing a perspective on the "annoying" nature of cellphone use in public.
Where I live there is a historic residence in which the first telephone was installed. The occupants of this house were important people and they were "early adopters" of things modern. They were also extremely social people and their house was regularly occupied by neighbors, colleagues, students of the university, elected officials, and even the general public. It had a staff and was very large and beautiful. The telephone was located on the main floor at the rear of the main staircase out of sight in the main entrance or "vestibule".
It is said that the wife of our esteemed occupant was particularly annoyed by the instrusion of the telephone into her household. Although I'm fairly sure it's use was infrequent (as there were not many telephones to connect to it for many years) I also think the nature of life at that time was in contrast to the kind of behaviour required for a telephone. Quiet voices, soft music, and sober discussions were the norm for this kind of household.
I know for a fact that if one is using the telephone in that very large and beautiful house they can be heard throughout the entire structure. The location of the device was unfortunate in that the acoustic properties of the main entrance were designed to project sound and provide the servants with clues about when and if someone was arriving or leaving.
The study you site has two environments which (at first) seem to be normal public spaces. They are not quiet places for contemplation and they are usually occupied by more than one person. A bus stop is often a difficult place to hold a "normal" conversation if it is located on a busy street. Considering the acoustic properties of any microphone with a background noise level as high as street traffic it is a marvel that someone can manage to make themselves heard.
Your remarks about the technology for helping a cellphone caller talk in normal or quieter levels is certainly a fair one. I recently noticed a number of people in our West Edmonton Mall using the earpiece and microphone while shopping because they can be heard above the very high noise levels of that shopping centre. Although it looks strange at first for someone who is alone to be talking while walking it is not intrusive or annoying.
In the early years of satellite retransmission of long distance telephone service the delay and echo would cause people be talk much louder than normal as a basic human response to being frustrated by the intermittent nature of the communication. Your own studies show these responses to web servers which have high latency.
Future users of cellphones will develop artful techniques for their use in public, the technology and coverage will improve and the clarity will get better with each new revision of the circuitry. In Calgary there are small glass rooms along the elevated walkways between the buildings in the downtown core which are like telephone booths without the phone. People can go into these and make a call without being disturbed by the walking traffic and these also serve to contain the conversations in a sound controlled environment.
Public places are always changing and behaviour is always changing. Although the study seems to clarify the "why" of people being annoyed it is not surprising. We only need enough time for people to come up with creative ways to make it less so.
Franklin Davis, Head of Browsing Business Development at Nokia, writes:
I'm not speaking officially for my employer, Nokia, but I have noticed that the volume of one's own voice is low in mobile phone earpieces. I think people may tend to shout if they can't hear themselves through the phone.
The technical term for feeding the user's own voice back to the earpiece of the phone is sidetone. And, users will respond to different sidetone levels just as you would expect: low levels make people think the phone is dead, and they are not being heard, too high levels make people lower their own voice, which will result in too low signal to noise ratio.
It should be noted that as sidetone is essentially a feedback loop with unknown characteristics (the phone can be in any environment), the control of the sidetone gain is a rather critical factor. We can't afford the phones to suffer from bad howling problems in the sidetone loop.
Also, now that I live in Finland (I'm from Massachusetts) I see a big difference between the US and Europe. Europeans tend to be more quiet and discreet in public (I wince at how loud US visitors speak when we're out). Mobile phone etiquette here is relatively well evolved. For example, people always set their phone to meeting mode when in a meeting, check the caller ID when it flashes, and quietly excuse themselves if they need to take the call. Finnish trains have "mobile phone booths" so you don't disturb fellow passengers. I rarely hear the "mobile shouting" that is so common at home.
We Americans are generally loud, but maybe there's hope for gradual evolution of mobile phone etiquette over time. Perhaps higher feedback volume would stimulate this?
Joshua R. Poulson, a manager in IBM's Linux Technology Center, writes:
Your recent article "Why Mobile Phones are Annoying" piqued my interest about a related subject: overhearing half a conversation in a cube environment. As a manager of software developers I receive frequent complaints about noise in the cube farm. While some conversations that go across the cube walls are actually more productive than an office environment due to easing collaboration, many people, especially senior technical leaders, have conversations on the phone with colleagues around the world. Your study indicates to me that such easily heard conversations may be more distracting that I had at first realized.
Thinking about it, I realize that I overhear and listen to conversations in my surrounds more often if they are only half the conversation. I think further study in this area would be very interesting.
Joseph Thoennes writes:
The conclusion of mobile phone conversations being annoying because you can only hear half the conversation is probably correct.
A similar situation arises when two people are speaking together in a language that the listeners do not understand. I've experienced this effect when traveling.
Another similar experience is when you hear music but can't place it. Once you place it, you forget it.
I think it has something to do with the pattern matching portion of the brain. Not being able to match a pattern seems to produce a vague stress leading to fear. Probably evolved as a defense mechanism.
Oren Haber-Schaim writes:
An orthogonal element to Monk's half-conversation factor: We are often more tolerant (less irritated by) behavior based on unavoidability such as coughing or leaving the room unexpectedly. (The tolerance is at an emotional level, not just an intellectual acceptance.)
A mobile discussion, because of that very mobility, has an opportunity to be done in a non-intrusive environment. If not done so, it must be done acceptably hushed or limited to rescheduling the discussion for such an environment.
For a face-face discussion, it is true that faces are as mobile as phones, but
So face-face is more acceptable at the same loudness.
- this would require rescheduling 2 parties vs. 1 party.
- face-face is considered the optimal type of discussion for which phones are only an inferior substitute
PS. There are likely more elements involved...
Pete Sullivan a UI Designer from Silicon Valley writes:
In response to this section:The problem seems to be that people pay more attention when they hear only half a conversation. It's apparently easier to tune out the continuous drone of a complete conversation, in which two people take turns speaking, than it is to ignore a person speaking and falling silent in turns.
Based on this early research, it's hard to know how we might design phones that overcome the turn-taking problem in audio projection. Speakerphones might be an answer, but I don't think so.
What about some form of muffled/masked feedback (like the adult voices in Charlie Brown cartoons - only less annoying)? That would give listeners a subtle cue that someone else is responding to the person, but still allows privacy for the person on the other end of the line.
That may only work if the annoyance stems from the from "dead air" that makes you wonder (at a preconscience level) if you need to respond.
Pavel Machek from Charles University in the Czech Republic writes:
There may be another factor while "half the conversation" is bad: when you hear both question and answer, it is pretty clear that you were not expected to answer. When you only hear the question, your brain starts to wonder "should I answer"?
Talking with the handsfree is pretty bad in this respect. When you hold the phone by your ear, everyone knows you are talking with someone else. Unlike two people talking, they have to look at you to determine that, through. With handsfree, its even worse — at least the handsfree I use is close to invisible, and it takes people a while before they realize I'm using telephone. Ouch. I actually had reactions where I asked the remote person something and some bystander was about to reply...