Mobile Phone Usage in Public Places

By: Julia, Sonali and Haroon

In their book “Mobile Communication” Ling and Donner argue that the connectivity and reachability brought about by a significant increase in mobile phone usage is allowing us to interact on the phone in any social situation and is changing the dynamics of our social interactions (Ling and Donner, p. 4). While this constant state of connectivity helps us maintain our relationships with friends and family, it also creates tensions with strangers.

It is now common to see people using their mobile phones in public places like theaters, public transits, and restaurants. This has put strangers in public places in awkward situations as they cannot help eavesdropping when someone near them talks loud on the cellphone. This growing cellular nuisance has been discussed in the article “Cellphones as a Modern Irritant” by Douglas Quenqua. The recent study on“The Effects of Cellphone Conversations on the Attention and Memory of Bystanders” published byPlosOneon which Quenqua’s article is based, reports that people are more attentive to cellphone conversations, and that these cellphone conversations are more distracting for strangers nearby than in-person dialogues. This listening-in to cellphone conversation has also been discussed by Lee Humphreys in “Cellphones in Public: Social Interactions in a Wireless Era.” Humphreys asserts that despite social rules against eavesdropping, it is common for people to listen to conversation when their partners are talking on mobile phones (Humphreys, p.818). It is natural for people to pay more attention to a one-sided conversation because human brain tries to make sense of the conversation by filling in the missing details. Cellphone conversations in public places could affect both the phone user and surrounding listeners. While it could be a nuisance and distraction for the person listening to a cellphone conversation, it could also affect the mobile phone user as confidential and private information could be eavesdropped by strangers.

But is the cognitive toll imposed by one-sided conversations the only reason that makes us frustrated with cellphone users, especially in a confined space and with little realistic chance to escape (such as in public transportation)? In his study of cellphone usage Humphreys also discusses the concept of dual front interaction that he observed when mobile phone users accompanied by a partner had to manage both relationships at the same time, often one at the expense of another. He found that when callers engage in phone conversations in the presence of a companion, they have “social obligations to both the person on the phone and the person they are with (Humphreys, p.819).” Since single callers are surrounded by strangers, they don’t feel the need to perform on two fronts and negotiate their relationships with surrounding listeners. Because they are solely focused on managing only one relationship – the relationship with the person on the phone, they fully dedicate their attention to phone conversation without much regard to those around. So, it is quite possible that this unnegotiated social relationship with a caller deepens our frustration with a “halfalogue” already brought about by the brain’s active work to fill in the blanks of a one-sided conversation.

People often use cellphones to keep themselves engaged. This is a very common practice, especially while commuting in public spaces. Sitting next to a person talking on the cellphone and listening to a “halfalogue” can be annoying, but do we really have a choice? We can say that there are power dynamics at play here. Drawing from Humphreys’ analysis of “telephone as a contestation of power” (Humphreys, p.822) and the “asymmetric relationship” (Humphreys, p. 822) between the caller and the answerer, here we see the same asymmetric relationship between the person talking on the phone and the bystander. As a bystander you do not have any control over when the conversation starts, the content of it, and its duration. You have no choice but to be a passive participant in the conversation. The person on the phone has a greater power in this asymmetric relationship. This is relationship is different from a relationship between a caller and an answerer where “disruption of hegemony” (Humphreys, p.824)  takes place when an answerer makes use of available technology (e.g., Caller Id) to make an informed decision about whether to answer a call or not. As a bystander, you are “surrounded by common rules and dilemmas” (Humphreys, p. 811) and the social norm is that you do not really have any say in this matter.

As the use of mobile phone in public spaces is increasing, it is leading to the change in social order by blurring the boundary between public and private spaces[i] .What one would typically call a public place is slowly becoming pockets of individual private spaces where people exhibit behaviors as if they were by themselves.  Although cell phones have many advantages and it connects society in unprecedented ways but they are making us less “socially minded” [ii]. A study shows that “The cell phone directly evokes feelings of connectivity to others, thereby fulfilling the basic human need to belong.” thus reducing the need to connect with others.











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