TALKING TO PEOPLE WHO AREN’T HERE: How Cell Phones Affect the Experience of Public Places

by G. Lee Young, PhD

Our public spaces are being transformed into a black hole of meaningless, incomplete conversations that are rarely of value to anyone but those having them. When a pastor or priest invites us all to follow him in prayer, and then he launches into a one-sided conversation with God, at least we care about what’s being said and how God might respond, otherwise we wouldn’t be in church. But when people on cell phones talk to entities who aren’t here, and who we also aren’t in any position to care about, I suggest that our collective public experience is being deeply undermined. It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone in the conversation were here, but when the present ambiance is being dominated by a largely absent significance, then our public places become signifiers of absence like never before.

I’ve opened with a decidedly metaphysical way of describing the assault of cell phones on our public spaces. To bring it down to earth a bit, a basic question can be asked: Why is it so much worse, or more rude and distracting, to hear half of a conversation someone is involved in over a cell phone than it is to hear the whole conversation when all parties are present? This question deserves controlled study, but allow me to present a great variety of hypotheses and then consider the ramifications.

#1: LOUDNESS HYPOTHESIS: People talk more loudly over cell phones than they typically do when everyone in the conversation is present, and in this way they attract more attention to themselves. This does often seem to be the case, but why?

#2: DEVICE COMPENSATION HYPOTHESIS: Because cell phone transmission may involve signal interferences, artificially lowered volume, or loud background noise on one or more sides of the conversation, people talk more loudly or more exactly or more extensively, and in this way cell phone conversations attract more attention to themselves than conversations between parties who are all present. And/or:

#3: ABSENT BODY LANGUAGE HYPOTHESIS: Lacking the ability to interpret body language over the phone, participants in a phone conversation talk more loudly or more exactly or more extensively, and in this way attract more attention to themselves. It would be interesting to see if public skyping, which allows conversation participants to witness the other’s body language, is as distracting as regular public cell phone conversation. And/or:

#4: SUBCONSCIOUS GAP-FILLING HYPOTHESIS: Given the gaps in the conversation – the parts contributed by the participants who are not here – it is harder for bystanders to filter out the conversation, since they are subconsciously trying to fill the gaps in the conversation that would not exist if all parties were present, and for this reason cell phone conversations attract more attention to themselves. And/or:

#5: INFORMATIONAL EMPHASIS HYPOTHESIS: Not only is there a lack of body language transmitted over cell phone conversation, but cell phone conversations are more purely informational in purpose, while gatherings among people who are all present can serve many purposes besides the conversational. Cell phone conversations attract more attention than all-present-gatherings in being more purely, unremittingly and enduringly engaged in for the purpose verbal information transmission. And/or:

#6: LOWERED PRIVACY LEVEL HYPOTHESIS: The content of overheard cell phone conversations is typically more distracting than overheard conversations where all participants are present, because cell phone conversation participants tend to feel less obligation to be private, so that the information overheard is anywhere from distractingly mundane to startlingly sensitive. The theory here is that, since the others in the conversation are not present, as long as the person on this side of the conversation is okay with disclosing the information to those overhearing it, the present party doesn’t typically need to worry about the privacy concerns of the party not present because that absent party is typically anonymous to those overhearing the conversation. Whereas, when all parties are present, they typically do not explicitly discuss preferred privacy levels and just assume a high privacy preference and so tend to talk in lower volume, or communicate more sensitive information using body language. A corollary to this is that cell phone conversations may tend to be more emotionally charged than conversations among those present, because the entirety of what is being handled over the phone is being handled in that phone conversation, while conversing groups are free to save discussion of more emotionally charged issues before the group arrives to the public place or after they leave. Note here that cell phone conversations are more akin in this way to publicly held business meetings, which likewise tend to be as distracting, which is why there are often separate rooms in public places like coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, offices, and hotels, etc., for such meetings. And/or:

#7: ABSENT SOUND WAVE DAMPENING EFFECT HYPOTHESIS: Even if not speaking at higher volume, the mouth of a person on a cell phone is often oriented in your direction, and the sound waves emitted by their mouths are not dampened by someone present who they would otherwise be talking to, and whose body would typically occupy a space between you and the speaker. And/or:

#8: ABSENT GROUP/INDIVIDUAL SEGREGATION HYPOTHESIS: In public places, (i) the people having conversations in groups and (ii) the people working individually tend to segregate themselves, but with the use of cell phones, there is no natural segregation of this kind, since people who are prepared to talk on the cell phone are often present alone as well. So the cell phone conversationalist will find an individual spot right next to someone who is not planning to converse. And also:

#9: UNFAIRNESS FEEDBACK LOOP HYPOTHESIS: When people on cell phones distract those who are not on cell phones for any of the above reasons, the sense of the unfairness of the situation felt by the person distracted makes the cell phone conversation even more distracting.

These hypotheses could likely use more consideration and reorganization in light of controlled study, but it’s a start. I believe that controlled studies that vary test conditions in the right ways will better quantify the damaging effect of public cell phone use on our mental and social health. What’s worse is that in most cases, not just one of the above hypothesized factors will be active in cell phone use, but most of them will. It may not be that all public places will benefit from regulation of cell phone use – regulations already enforced and accepted in libraries and theaters – but that those public places traditionally attracting people who seek a concentration-conducive environment and/or a relaxing place to gather for socializing – like restaurants and coffee shops – are among those that could greatly benefit.

If cell phone use in such places is found to be significantly damaging, the problem and its solution could follow the analogy of the problem and regulation of smoking in public. I expect that we need to restore the fair usage of our public places by reinstituting the Phone Booth in some form, or at least by insisting that cell phone users take it outside, as we ask smokers. An assessment of the problem will likely also have to acknowledge a continuum of uses of the public places in questions, a continuum having these opposite poles: (i) those who use the public place for individual reflection or concentration activities; versus (ii) those who use public places to seek human interaction. It’s expected that the first kind would have a more negative attitude to those using cell phones than the second kind. The question then is whether we can agree on how to use public places in a way that is fair to everyone.

For more on the impact of cell phone use on individuals and societies around the world, see this 2001 study by philosopher Sadie Plant: Cell Phone Impact (PDF)