You May Be a Jerk

If you picked answers 1, 2, or 3, then you are a courteous person.

If you picked answer 4 then you are a jerk. I'm sorry, but there is just no way around that. When you use your cell phone in a public place you are being boorish and imposing and inconsiderate—in other words a jerk.

(And if somebody tells you that your conversation is disturbing and you respond, "Sorry, I didn't know this was a library." then you are a flat-out asshole. Really.)

There are several reasons why cell phone discussions are more disruptive than conversations with people. They all have to due to feedback and cues.

The first issue is that during a phone conversation, you don't have the visual cues that indicate your discussion partner is receiving you. When you have those cues you will modulate your voice level to the point where the conversation registers, but not too far beyond. (That is, unless you are one of those unfortunate people that through some tragedy of genetics or upraising never acquired an "inside voice.") You don't get those cues when talking to a non-seen person on a telephone, so you are naturally going to raise your voice to a level where it's sure to be heard.

The second issue is that the old "Western Electric" phones used to feed a little bit of the microphone signal back to the earpiece. That way you could hear yourself and adjust your voice level accordingly. Modern phones don't do that, thus taking away another cue that helps you modulate your voice level.

Try as you might, you just can't avoid being disruptive when you use your cell phone in a public place. So next time the phone rings in a restaurant, please consider taking it outside. And be assured that your phone won't explode if you let the call roll to voice mail and return it later.


Comments have been closed for this entry.

re: You May Be a Jerk

Wow, I can't possibly disagree more.

It certainly *is* possible to use a cell phone, in a public space, at a volume that is considered "normal".

Your argument is that 'all people will talk loud', which is simply inaccurate. Many of us have learned to talk at a reasonable volume on our cellphones, often because we wear headsets which enable us to talk in a normal casual way just like we would any other time.

re: You May Be a Jerk

Another reason that public cell-phone talking is disruptive also has to do with cues, but for the people forced to listen. When you overhear two people talking face to face, the rhythms and cadences of the conversation sound normal, and are regular enough that they are able to be backgrounded by the human brain. If you're just listening to one side of a conversation, however, the patterns are irregular and jarring, which basically force your brain to pay attention to them, even at a reasonable volume.

re: You May Be a Jerk

Although I couldn't have articulated the reasons, overheard cell phone conversations have almost always seemed disruptive for those in earshot. Marc's explanation makes sense to me - two people talking makes a conversation, but one voice is a proclamation.

Thank you,

Annie the Garden Blogger

re: You May Be a Jerk

Derek claims it is possible to talk on a cell phone at a reasonable volume, especially if using a wireless earpiece.

Sorry, Derek, it may be possible, but most of the thoughtless egotists who do this appear to believe that everyone around them should benefit from being forced to overhear a high volume one-sided conversation. It is meant to help them realize how important the speaker is.

re: You May Be a Jerk

Derek, I don't think I believe you. But here is the thing: if you're right I probably wouldn't know. We only notice the jerks.

I'll keep an eye out and re-post if I see something to change my opinion.