Phone talk

People get obsessed about weird things. There are some people who will light up when the conversation turns to dogs and will happily regale you with tales of their pooch. To them their stories are fascinating, but to you they\’re are like watching dung dry. Others will obsess about nail polish; others still will be able to think about nothing other than their latest illness. Obsessions come in all shapes and forms, but today there is one particular shape that is an obsessive favourite: the shape of a mobile phone.

Whether you call it a mobile phone or a cell phone or a smart phone or just “sweetheart”, these mobile communication devices are the icons and idols of our age. According to a CTIA (The Wireless Association) survey, in 2012 people around the world spent about 2.3 trillion minutes using their wireless devices. A good proportion of that was mobile phone use.

There has been lots of analysis into how people “relate” to their phone, which alone says something about these devices. Did you ever hear of a study into how people “relate” to their oven or their washing machine (other loopy Uncle Leon who wears the bow ties)? It has emerged that people report feeling a personal connection with their phone. In fact, so connected do people feel, they experience anxiety when they are away from their phone. Surveys have shown that 76 per cent of people have their phone either always on or on most of the time, and 24 per cent say they would answer their phone even when it “interrupts a meeting or a meal”.

Since mobile phones are not only popular, but obsessively popular, it is highly likely that at any given moment you will be impacted by someone using one of these devices (even if it is not you). The thing about mobile phones is that they are indeed mobile and are often used in public places. That is why a new study sought to discover what the effect of this private, yet public, communication may be.

In the study, subjects were asked to complete a task involving solving anagrams. While the subjects performed the tasks, the experimenters did one of two things. For one half of the subjects, they carried out a short scripted conversation in the background either about shopping for furniture, a birthday party or meeting a date at the shopping centre. For the other half of the subjects, one of the experimenters carried out one side of the same conversation on a mobile phone. The subjects did not know that the background conversations were part of the study.

Subjects who overheard the one-sided phone conversation rated it as much more distracting than those who heard the talk between two people. Additionally, those who had heard the phone conversation were able to remember more words from the conversation and made fewer errors when recognising words that were part of the phone call.

So it seems that one-sided phone conversations are uniquely distracting events. It might be that the listener is inadvertently devoting thought to imagining what the other side of the conversation might be. It could be that when two people are having a conversation there are more taboos around listening in. Whatever the reason though, it does seem that phone conversations are uniquely disturbing. So next time someone answers their phone in a meeting, feel justified in subjecting them to a withering glare.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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