Overhearing Telephone Conversations in Public: The Annoyance of the Halfalogue

Why we are forced to eavesdrop on phone conversations in pubic

We have all had experience of the annoying people on their mobile (cell) phones chatting loudly in public spaces usually about nothing of particular consequence. These overhead half-conversations have been dubbed ‘halfalogues. Spend a great deal of time travelling the UK, I often encounter the halfalogue on trains particularly in the so-called quiet-zone of the train. The perpetrators may protest that their mutterings on the phone are not as distracting or as annoying as people chatting. And, yes there are some people who have two conversational volumes on trains: (i) Look at me and (ii) Seriously, you really need to look at me I’m being interesting. More often than not, they are not. However research has shown that we do find overhearing a halfalogue more distracting and annoying than overhearing a full conversation. The main reason for the increased stress to a halfalogue is that our brains are drawn to the unpredictable and try to make sense of the information. With an ordinary conversation all the information is present. With the halfalogue it is not. So it is worth being more aware of people around you. Because of our psychological make up, we can’t help but try to make sense of the overhead half-conversation. So on a long train journey, other people are held captive in the physical and psychological senses. You may think you are just being sociable by chattering away on the phone for hours on end about nothing in particular. However, what you are really doing is torturing everyone around you.

Halfalogues are annoying but are they dangerous?

On a recent bust bus journey there was a young man on the back seat of the bus intent on letting everyone on the bus know how intelligence and informed he was. As he was proudly broadcasting his views to the person on the other end of the phone, he uttered a few phrases that brought gasps, tuts, dirty looks and exclamations of ‘oh please’ and ‘for god’s sake’. On a busy bus, people were only able to hear the bits he emphasized. At one point he blurted out ‘the Germans had the right idea’ and ‘I know it’s drastic but we have just got to do what the Germans did and get rid of a few. . .’ The problem with the halfalogue is that it requires us to work hard to make sense of the information. We can’t help but trying to make sense and so employ a strategy of cognitive economy. We can’t process every single bit of information that comes our way, instead we apply scripts, schemata and stereotypes as heuristic devices. In short, we make educated guesses based on insufficient data. It’s often difficult NOT to jump to erroneous conclusions.

Context and communication

When I heard the ‘Germans had the right idea’ phrase, my contextual cues to interpret the halfalogue were the people at the front of the bus who turned around, tutted and scowled in disgust. My guess was that they had assumed some kind of racist, ethnic cleansing diatribe (halfatribe), or maybe that was tapping into my own stereotypes. After all, I only had a few phrases and audience reactions to go on. It was only after I continued to listen to the halfalogue that he uttered the phrase ‘on the terraces’. Immediately the context changed and the reactions of my fellow passengers on the bus became amusing. Although, if they had not heard the new information I just became a man on the bus grinning at someone on the phone proposing genocide. I was compelled to listen to halfalogue-man. It transpired that he was commenting on the new initiative in some German football clubs to remove some of the seats in the stadium and reinstate the more traditional standing on he terraces. So nothing to groan or grimace about unless you find football tedious in the extreme.

Lessons from the halfalogue?

Fortunately for the football commentator on the bus, the other passengers only had the weapon of ‘the dirty look’ and the ‘tut’ and the eye-roll in their arsenal. However it’s easy to imagine how this situation might have escalated. More than anything the mobile (cell) phone has done more to shatter the boundaries between public and private. So for the habitual halfalogger, it is worth remembering the impact on other people. Just be more socially aware. Our brains have not developed the capacity to avoid the annoyance of the halfalogue and probably never will. Rarely are people impressed with anyone’s analytical skills on the back of a bus or on a four hour train journey. People aren’t glancing over because they have discovered one of the greatest minds of the 21st Century. It’s annoyance that they have to subjected to drivel and further annoyance that they seem unable to drag themselves away from the witnessing the social skills equivalent of a road traffic accident.

[Gary Wood is the author of Unlock Your Confidence which aims to put a bit of social conscience back into self-help]