Every once in a while I like to take myself off to a local coffee shop and find a nice quiet corner, order a pot of tea, and sit and read a magazine . . . or the local paper . . . or possibly even just gaze into space and think (deeply, of course) about life, the universe . . . and whatever I need to pick up from the supermarket on the way home . . .
Lately, however, I have been finding it harder and harder to find that ‘quiet little corner’ . . .
It’s not because the cafes are any busier than they used to be. People have always gone to coffee shops to socialise, to catch up with friends and family and to chat, and my ‘quiet little corner’ has often only been that in my head. My work desk is located in the reception area of a community college and if I had not developed the ability to ignore much of the movement and noise that rages around me on a daily basis, I would never get any work done, so ‘tuning out’ the chatter in a coffee shop has never been an issue. Well, at least it never used to be a issue . . .
Recently, however, I have become more aware that, while still relatively easy to ‘unhear’ a room full of chattering people, I seem totally incapable of blocking out anyone talking on their mobile phone. I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I just can’t do it. The more I desperately try not to listen—the more I seem to hear. I know I am probably more intolerant than most (Luddite? Moi?) but surely I can’t be the only one sitting in a public place feeling like that person over there talking (so loudly) into their phone is really really annoying . . .
(Are these people even aware, do you think, that they are not only talking to the person on the other end of their call, but to everyone else within earshot as well? Because sometimes I really wonder. I have certainly (and unwillingly) overheard more than a few things in the past that I definitely feel I could have gone happily to my grave not knowing. The location of a certain young man’s latest piercing immediately springs to mind . . . )
So what’s the deal? Why do people talking on their phones distract me so much?
It seems that there is a perfectly reasonable (and scientific) answer. Apparently, the speech processing part of the human brain is wired in such a way that it needs to make sense of all the ‘patterns’ it is seeing and hearing around us. Normal two-sided conversations have rhythms and patterns that our brains understand and we can therefore tune them in and out as we need them.
However, with a phone call, we only hear half a conversation, and our brains (clever little things that they are) realise something is missing and immediately start trying to complete the patterns to fill in the other side of the conversation. This causes us to be distracted from whatever else we are doing (no wonder I never get to finish my magazines) and, before you know it, there you are . . . eavesdropping . . . whether you want to or not.
Well, that’s all fine, well and good, and it’s nice to know that I am not just a closet nosey-parker but knowing why I eavesdrop doesn’t resolve the issue. How do I make it stop? Perhaps there is some sort of meditative technique I can master that will help me to tune out these distracting and annoying half-conversations . . . or perhaps I should start wearing ear plugs (I might start a new fashion trend . . . ) . . . or, even better . . . perhaps I’ll start getting take-away coffees instead and go and find a nice (mobile free) tree to sit under . . .
If you are out and about in public and you are using your mobile phone, take care in your ‘private’ conversations, because, in the words of that eminent psychiatrist Dr Frasier Crane, “whether you’re happy, or sad, or mad, or bad . . . . I’m listening . . . “