April 10, 2005

The unwanted conversation of other people

The FAA is thinking about lifting the ban on cell phone use in flight, but passengers and air crews overwhelmingly dislike the idea, according to stories in the WaPo, Information Week, Newsday and many other sources. The stories agree in assuming that cell phone conversations are uniquely intrusive and annoying. Thus the WaPo:

"The airplane is one of the few places you can go to have some quiet time," said Susan Grant, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League, which sponsored a poll released yesterday that said 63 percent of Americans don't want the federal government to lift its ban on cell phones in flight. "If we lose that, there will be no place to hide from the aggravation of having to listen to the unwanted conversation of other people."

As I've observed before, there's something funny about this. People do still have face-to-face conversations, and many people do this on airplanes, in my experience. So a phone-free airplane is not a place where "the unwanted conversation of other people" is absent. It could be that the survey respondents feel that cell phone availability in planes would cause the number of conversations to increase, and they might be right about that. But as Mark Twain was the first to point out, and as controlled experiments have since confirmed, listening to one side of a conversation is much more annoying than listening to a whole conversation at the same distance and volume level.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 10, 2005 08:36 AM