Halfalogues

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Recently in the news, a (not yet published?) study by Lauren Emberson and MIchael Goldstein, on why "halfalogues" are so annoying. Thus "Eavesdropping a waste of energy", ABC Science:

Ever wonder why overhearing a phone conversation is so annoying? American researchers think they have found the answer.

Whether it is the office, on a train or in a car, only hearing half of a conversation drains more attention and concentration than when overhearing two people talking, according to scientists at Cornell University.

"We have less control to move away our attention from half a conversation, or 'halfalogue', than when listening to a dialogue," says Lauren Emberson, a co-author of the study that will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

"Since halfalogues really are more distracting and you can't tune them out, this could explain why people are irritated," she says.

Or in the LA Times:

Researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests to gauge people's reactions when exposed to four background noise settings: silence, a monologue, a conversation between two people and half a conversation (called a halfalogue). The study participants were seated at computers and asked to perform various cognitive tests while exposed to one of the three sounds or silence.

The study showed that hearing the halfalogue was the only background noise that distracted the study participants and lowered their scores on the cognitive tests. For some reason, our brains are unable to tune out half a conversation. Researchers believe this is because we can't predict the speech pattern of a halfalogue the way we can with a monologue or two-way conversation — making it harder to ignore. [...]

"We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation," the lead author of the study, Lauren Emberson, said in a news release. "We actively predict what the person is going to say next and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension."

But regular LL readers read it here first:

"Mind-reading fatigue", 11/23/2003
"Mind-reading experiments at the University of York", 4/13/2004

And regular readers of Mark Twain have suspected it since 1880, four years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone:

"That queerest of all the queer things in the world", 3/25/2004

Seriously, this sounds like an excellent study, though it would be nice if they made it available for readers before pitching it to the media.

[Update -- Lauren Emberson, the lead author of the study, wrote:

I agree that it is frustrating to have all this press about the finding but not to have the paper available. For some reason, Cornell decided to send out their Press Release rather early. In hindsight, we should have explicitly asked them to wait until the paper was available or until we can post it on a site for easy access. However, we are permitted to send the paper to "research colleagues on an individual basis", so I've taken the liberty of attaching the uncorrected proof to this email.

I'll comment further, in another post, when I have a little more time. Meanwhile, the Cornell University press release: "Overheard cell phone conversations: Less speech equals more distraction".

And some more of the resulting press coverage: "Cellphone conversations we overhear really bug us, a Cornell University study shows", LA Times; "Why overhearing mobile phone conversations is so annoying", The Telegraph; "Other People's Cell Phone Conversations Really Are Annoying", Business Week; "Why hearing half a cellphone conversation is annoying", USA Today; "Cornell researchers: Yes, cell phone yappers are annoying", Washington Post; "Be kind: text, don’t call", The Independent; "Study shows why overhearing cell phone calls bugs us so much", Examiner; "Science Explains: Why Overheard Cell Phone Conversations Are So Annoying", Discover Magazine; "'Halfalogues' drain listeners' attention: That's why cellphone conversations are annoying", The Vancouver Sun (Reuters).]



37 Comments

  1. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 7:46 am

    Surely a 'halfalogue' ought to be hearing every other word of one side of a conversation?

  2. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    I propose "schizologue", which emphasizes the split nature of such discourse without naming a quantity that sounds like it should be arithmetically consistent with the di-/mono- system but isn't. As a bonus feature it nicely evokes how you feel after being forced to listen to it for long.

  3. Mark P said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    Demi-dialogue?

    Since we apparently cannot ignore a halfalogue, I propose a game in which the eavesdropper adds completely unrelated comments for the unheard half, kind of like the way Woody Allen changed the plot of a Japanese-language film (which he named "What's Up Tiger Lily") by dubbing an unrelated story into the dialogue.

  4. Rolig said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    What I find annoying are coinages like "halfalogue", and the fact that the LA Times accepts them without reservation – simply writing, "called a halfalogue", as if this were a well-established word, not even, "what researchers are calling 'halfalogue'". If for some reason I felt that "half a conversation" or even "half-dialogue" was too cumbersome and another, unhyphenated single word was required, I might suggest "hemilogue" (or "semiloquy"?), but "halfalogue" strikes me as an infelicitous macaronic.

  5. Amy Stoller said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    "Halfalogue" just makes me think of Heffalumps – a far, far better coinage, in my opinion.

  6. James Moughan said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    And yet I still found mobile phone conversations in Hindi loud and annoying, despite not speaking a word of the language.

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    A coinage closer to the Greek may be haplogue, or haplog if you wish.

  8. DonBoy said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    I have a similar issue, but in the other direction: I really hate talking on the phone where other people can hear me. I don't mind the phone in general, although I don't really like it either, but something about people hearing only my part of the conversation makes me uncomfortable. Maybe I'm just super-duper polite and thoughtful?

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    How about a "conver" (or a "sation")?

  10. Charles Gaulke said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    You're probably still unconsciously trying to predict prosody and emphasis, though. There's a lot more to speech than the meaning of the words.

    I have no problem with "halfalogue" as a term for one side of a conversation. It's informal sounding, like most portmanteaus, but perfectly clear and it isn't really inconsistent with "dia" (across, not two) and "mono".

  11. Charles Gaulke said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    Ah, that first paragraph was directed at James Moughan. I need to type faster.

  12. Mertseger said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    Mathemetician checking in: wouldn't a "demi-dialogue" = a "logue"? As in, "I got distracted by all the logues around me at the airport."

  13. Mr Punch said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    Made me think of "Halfalogue, halfalogue,halfalogue onward, all in the valley of Death rode the six hundred."

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Aaron Toivo: arithmetically consistent with the di-/mono- system

    Mertseger: wouldn't a "demi-dialogue" = a "logue"?

    But the dia- in dialogue means "across" and is not the numerical prefix di-.

    Halfalogue sounds like what you got from splitting a log, à la Abe Lincoln.

  15. Rembrandt Q. Einstein said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    Fractologue?
    Partialogue?
    Semiloquy?
    Alternoratory?
    Fragifabulation?
    Moietation?

    I heartily endorse the suggestion "schizologue", because not only is it a neat description of a broken conversation, it also reflects the apparent lunacy of a person talking to themself on the train.

  16. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    Looks like halfalogue is eliciting objections akin to fishapod. Both are cases of blending (half + dialogue, fish + tetrapod) where classical combining forms get used in rather confusing fashion.

  17. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    @Mark P:

    I know nothing of this Woody Allen of whom you speak, but the classic example of this sort of game (for Brits of my generation anyway) was the wonderful Magic Roundabout, beloved of a generation of university students here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magic_Roundabout#English-language_version

    Time for bed!

  18. Josh said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Halfalogue annoys me too, and based on past experience I'm guessing this means the term will stick. It's simple, memorable, and works with the conception that dialogue has the numerical prefix di-. Hence half-alogue and not half-logue. And in fairness, it is explicitly clear in its meaning without explanation.

    Also, those who are doing the research tend to get the perk of coining terms for the phenomena they study. They can have halfalogue as long as us physics folks get to keep coming up with crazy names for subatomic particles.

  19. Leo said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    DonBoy – I get exactly the same thing. I think it's because you get the impression that the other people in earshot are all listening to you, but what you're saying is not meant for them, so you get the awkward feeling that you're ignoring them or talking nonsense. Therefore it doesn't happen if everyone else in the room is also busy in conversation.

  20. Chip S said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    "Infelicitous Macaronic" would be an great name for a band

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    I agree with what James Moughan is implying. Part of the reason listening to a "halfalogue" is annoying has nothing to do with actually understanding the speech, but is due to the fact that it's a distracting stimulus that's intermittent rather than more or less continuous. If it were continuous it would be much easier to tune out. This is the same principle that motivates makers of car alarms to have the alarm sound for, say, 10 seconds, then stop for maybe 3 seconds, then start again for another 10 seconds, and so on until it's deactivated. If it sounded continuously you could ignore it after a while. If it keeps stopping and starting, ignoring it is a lot harder.

  22. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    The following reportedly happened to a fellow who used a public toilet:

    I had barely sat down when I heard a voice from the other bathroom stall saying, "How are you?" I don't know what got into me, but I answered, somewhat embarrassed, "Doin' just fine."

    And the other person said, "So what are you up to?"

    At that point, I was thinking, "This is too bizarre," so I said, "Uh, I'm like you, just traveling." At this point I was just trying to get out as fast as I could when I heard another question. "Can I come over?"

    O.K., this question was just too weird for me, but I figured I could just be polite and end the conversation. I answered: "No. I'm a little busy right now."

    Then I heard the person say, nervously: "Listen, I'll have to call you back. There's an idiot in the next stall who keeps answering all my questions."

  23. Richard said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

    This brings to mind interleaved 'halfalogues' from the Two Ronnies. Classic!

  24. Adrian Morgan said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    I'm curious as to whether my blog played a role in bringing this to your attention.

    Circumstancial evidence that it may have: partly that you linked to the ABC news article, which is the same article I linked to, and partly timing. The ABC news article was published on 21 May, I mentioned it on 7 June, and the present article is dated 9 June. (I publish link collections on – in theory – the 7th and 21st of each month.)

    In the original LL article, you give one of the best descriptions of theory of mind that I've come across (drawing attention to its multifaceted nature), and write: "if you're not autistic, you can't stop yourself from reading your companions' minds any more than you can stop yourself from noticing the color of their clothes".

    Now, I was diagnosed with asperger's syndrome when I was eleven (late eighties), and I'm often annoyed by oversimplified media statements to the effect that autism spectrum disorder involves an absence of theory of mind. (This can sound hypocritical given that the neurotypical crowd has so often failed to read my thoughts.) I think your 2003 article is a good foundation for a more balanced and intelligent discussion, by putting the emphasis on theory of mind as an uncontrollable instinct rather than an ability, which I think is nearer the crux of the matter. (There's a case to be made that many problems in the world, such as cynicism and prejudice, are the result of a hyperactive theory of mind.)

    As for phones, I think the only time I try to interpret a halfalogue is when I wish to speak to the person when they've finished, and am trying to guage whether or not the conversation is nearly over. Apart from that, I don't care.

    [(myl) I learned about this work because Ben Zimmer sent me the two links that I cited.

    As for the remark in the 2003 post about autism, one of the standard theories about autism (popularized by Steven Pinker) is that it's "mind blindness", i.e. a deficiency in "theory of mind" reasoning. In fact this is obviously not an adequate characterization of the whose range of people and phenomena encountered on the "autistic spectrum", which in my opinion is so broad and vague as to be more confusing than helpful. See here, here, here, here for some discussion.]

  25. Hamish said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 5:58 am

    So do we now have a wholealogue for both sides of the halfalogue?

  26. Erin said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    Hearing only half a conversation can't be as important as it seems, I dare to venture. After all, think of how often you hear half of something and aren't irritated by it. If you hear half of a song or see half of a tv show or movie, you might wonder how it ended, but you won't be irritated in the same way. It makes more sense to say that if the half is taken out intermittently, it's more distracting and, therefore, potentially irritating.

    But I'm more irritated by overhearing conversations when I think it's inappropriate for someone to have a conversation in that situation at that moment. The subject of the conversation has some bearing on whether I'll be irritated (no conversations at the office about last week's embarrassing doctor's visit, please). I'm more likely to be annoyed by a phone conversation than a face-to-face conversation, but if two people start having a conversation around me in a movie theater, I'll be pretty annoyed. Perhaps the generations of folks who grew up with mobile phones and who are surrounded by mobile halfalogues (witness any mall or student union or high school hallway) aren't as annoyed when they overhear mobile halfalogues. But my own irritation with halfalogues may derive less from a cognitive incapacity to tune them out than from the fact that they strike me as at least impolite if not a bit imperious when the audible interlocutor seems indifferent to whether anyone is inconvenienced or irritated by overhearing a halfalogue.

  27. Theodore said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

    I think one of the previous related studies suggested that the irritation comes from the listener's instinct to orient to communication that appears to be directed towards them. When overhearing an entire conversation, we release our attention as soon as we hear a corresponding reply.

  28. Charles Gaulke said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    Erin –

    I'm fairly certain that if I watched half a TV program in a sense that was actually comparable to how I overhear a phone call – I hear half a conversation, something like every other minute rather than the first fifteen, say – I would find it at least as irritating as hearing one side of a phone conversation.

  29. Charles Gaulke said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    Wow, I failed badly at editting that. I will stop posting from work, now.

  30. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

    One thing that puzzles me is the strong association people make to mobile phone conversations. But surely the effect is exactly the same with landline phones, and those have been around for a good couple of years.

    Recency illusion? Due to increased exposure? Before, one would only experience this from time to time, e.g. in a shared/open-plan office…

    BTW, exactly how irritating a halfalogue is depends at least partially on a host of factors, such as the topic, volume, etc., at least to me.

  31. Adam said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    With regard to the complaints about "halfalogue/dialogue", isn't this analagous to "haploid/diploid"? ;-)

    Can we count on linguists and psychologists to campaign for enforcement of the rules against yapping on mobile phones on public transport? (At least in the UK, there are actually bylaws against making noise that annoys other passengers, but the bus and train companies don't enforce them.)

  32. chris said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    There's a case to be made that many problems in the world, such as cynicism and prejudice, are the result of a hyperactive theory of mind.

    Superstition, too. The volcano isn't really angry at anyone, but if you're wired to see everything as an intentional actor with goals and emotions, you might start looking for ways to placate it.

    Then, if you have a similarly hyperactive pattern detector, when the volcano stops erupting you'll see which one of them succeeded. (The answer "none" isn't instinctively plausible any more than the idea that the volcano has no goals or plans and doesn't care about you.)

    I wonder if people who are distracted by halfalogues are equally distracted by someone using the same cell phone to dictate a voice mail? Is that similar to the "monologues" tested in the experiment?

    Also, if halfalogues are so distracting, does that mean that having a passenger talk on a cell phone so the driver doesn't have to isn't really that helpful, because the driver is still distracted by the halfalogue? How does the distraction of overhearing a halfalogue compare to the distraction of participating in a dialogue?

  33. Jon said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    "One thing that puzzles me is the strong association people make to mobile phone conversations. But surely the effect is exactly the same with landline phones, and those have been around for a good couple of years."

    There are no landline conversations going on in the subway, or the bus or coffee shop or library, so it seems to me that the issue might be subterranean enough to avoid discussion before mobile ubiquity.

  34. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    Jon: Yes, that was what I said in my second pargraph, more or less.

  35. Bread & roses said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 3:54 am

    It seems obvious to me why the piece was pushed to the press before it was released in full. That way, the linguists reading it would only get half the information (all the methodology, etc, missing), and it would draw their attention more strongly, and they would be less able to tune it out.

    Seems to me the media has been onto this phenomenon for quite some time.

  36. Paul Brians said,

    June 14, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    I'm just as annoyed by loud two-way conversations in a restaurant or plane as I am by hearing half of a loud cell-phone conversation. The irritating factor for me is volume. Most Americans don't trust their phones to amplify their voices adequately and tend to shout.

    Some years ago when we traveled in Japan we saw many people talking on the streets into their cell phones and never encountered any voice raised loudly enough for us to overhear. Do the Japanese have better cell phones, or are they just more polite?

    If I can't make out what's being said, conversation–two-way or one-sided–in a public place doesn't bother me unless it's in a place where silence is important: a theater, concert hall, etc.

  37. Les petites collections de mots sur le web : énoncés mémorables, #auvol, milogues | La pensée du discours said,

    December 31, 2012 @ 6:16 am

    [...] s'agit de la traduction de halfalogue, qui avait fait l'objet en 2010 déjà d'un billet sur l'un de mes blogs de linguistes américains préférés. Alors c'est vrai que Marc Jajah a un peu modifié le sens de milogue, puisque pour lui cela [...]

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