"Thank you for your contribution"

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Yesterday evening I wound up spending several hours in the Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires, and the result was a brilliant idea. Or maybe an idle fantasy — you decide.

I found a comfortable place to sit, and was struggling with a large Excel spreadsheet that resisted being recast into a form accessible to more civilized programming, due to embedded carriage returns and newlines and so on (don't ask). My concentration was impaired by a man who was pacing back and forth next to me, talking very loudly on his cell phone in order to berate a series of business subordinates for various elaborately itemized failures.

After fifteen minutes or so, it occurred to me that as long as I had to listen to this, I might as well record it, since the whole performance was like something scripted by David Mamet. So I started a recording app going on my cell phone. And not wanting to do anything surreptitious, I held up the phone and showed its recording app interface to Mr. Boss Man, before laying it down on the table next to me to continue recording. He promptly lowered his voice and moved far enough away that I could no longer hear him.

So maybe I'll start a research collection of real-world phone conversations in public places. And in order to get informed consent, I might print up some slips of paper with a message like this one:

Thank you for your contribution to our growing research dataset of recorded cell phone conversations. As you can see, a digital recording device is recording the ambient sounds in this public space. If you continue speaking loudly enough to register in this recording, we will take that as implicit consent for your conversation to be recorded, uploaded, and shared with other researchers. Your recording will help linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists to document verbal behavior in the modern world.

Will I actually do this? Probably not — among other things, laws about making such recordings in public places are locally variable and always somewhat complicated. But maybe sometimes…



  1. Robert Coren said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    I think maybe it's both a brilliant idea and an idle fantasy.

    You'd want to be careful, I'd think. Apart from possible legal issues, you may well encounter the occasional subject who considers this a reasonable pretext for physical violence.

    On the other hand, if a lot of people started doing this, it might go some way toward alleviating the plague of Conversations We'd Just As Soon Not Be Hearing.

  2. Paul Kay said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    Do you think it might work with small children in my regular breakfast coffee shop?

    Related peeve. Here's one more "There are two kinds of people": those who don't think phone calls received in a restaurant need to be pursued outside of the dining area and civilized people.

  3. Laura Morland said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    I think it's a brilliant idea. I've already printed out your paragraph (it comes out four to a page using Bookman OldStyle 14 pt font), making two minor changes: I boldfaced most of the second sentence, and added an exclamation mark at the end of the first.

    However, in order not to make a liar out of me, I'll need to know the location of a repository to upload my future recordings.

    Contrary to @Robert Coren, I think the chances of inciting physical assault are so infinitesimally small as to be beneath consideration… or worry. Moreover, anyone involved in an intense phone conversation is virtually in another world. In the time it would require for him (likely not her) to switch mental gears and attempt to tackle you, you would surely be able to move out of harm's way.

    [(myl) If you really want to try this, pending further discussion about how to do what, I'd suggest using a potentially-shareable cloud storage service such as Google Drive or Microsoft Azure. Or you could try GitHub, though they don't like more a gigabyte of storage associated with a particular project. My guess is that most subjects will respond to the notification by quieting down or moving the conversation elsewhere, though, so you may not end up using much storage.]

  4. Ari Corcoran said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    Of course, in longhand, it has been a favourite methodology for countless novelists, journalists and other writers: recording overheard conversations. And we all do the "I overheard someone saying …".

    Mobile phones are the most irritating–and interesting in this regard. For some bizarre reason, people insist on speaking loudly into their mobiles.

    At the Qantas Lounge at Alice Springs one day I overheard (wish I HAD recorded it) a series of over the top criticisms and commentary about fellow businessmen and politicians in the Northern Territory. Being a mild sadist, at the end of the phone call, I wandered over to the caller, and asked him how much of the information he would like me to pass on to those concerned (the NT is a small place).

    He went the colour of a bad shit.

    Apart from its potential benefit to to linguists, anthropologists and psychologists documenting and recording verbal behaviour there are at least great possibilities in blackmail. Few jurisdictions, I imagine, have laws against the recording of public utterances–albeit one-sided–of mobile phone calls.

    And @ Robert Coren, I agree, "it might go some way toward alleviating the plague of Conversations We'd Just As Soon Not Be Hearing."

  5. Stephen said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 3:46 pm

    I heard a radio piece about this and one contributor (possibly Miles Kington) recounted an incident where someone a bay or so away on a train was making a purchase and they loudly gave out their credit card details (number, CV2 number, expiry date) as well as their full name & address and mobile phone number.

    Because of the loud discussion at the start (selecting the items), Kington (or whoever) was primed and noted all of this down. When the call was completed he sent all of the personal information to the caller in a text, taking care not to give out his own mobile number.

    The caller received the text, was horrified, jumped up and moved about the carriage very loudly demanding to know who had done this.

    Kington said that he was very pleased that the other people sitting near him (who had seen what he was doing) managed to pretend total ignorance of what the caller was referring to.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    How do you send someone a text without exposing your own number?

  7. Stephen said,

    November 18, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    @Rod Johnson

    In the UK, if you prefix a called number with 141 it tells the telephone system not to pass your number to the recipient.

    The telephone system, obviously, knows and stores the calling number and so it can be retrieved if someone is up to no good.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    November 19, 2016 @ 12:08 pm

    @Laura Morland: I wouldn't assume it's only men. A number of years ago I was on a crowded bus going home from a baseball game, and there was a woman having a long, clearly audible phone conversation about goings-on at her place of work that should certainly not have been made public. (No, not racy, just maybe a little shady. I don't remember the details.)

    @Ari Corcoran: I think the reason people speak loudly on their phones, especially in public, is that they're having trouble hearing the other end of the conversation (ambient noise, poor-quality speaker, whatever), and there's a natural tendency to respond to this problem by speaking louder oneself.

  9. MikeA said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    Overhearing half a conversation goes back some ways:


    Also, I often wonder if telecom companies are anxiously awaiting the death of the last person who ever used a (pre-breakup) landline, and thus remembers a time when call quality was not always abysmal. Long-view frog-boiling, I calls it.

    [(myl) See

    "Mind-reading fatigue", 11/23/2003
    "That queerest of all the queer things in the world", 3/25/2004
    "Mind-reading experiments at the University of York", 4/13/2004
    "Halfalogues", 6/9/2010

  10. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 20, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

    A Seattle-area street newspaper runs an occasional comic based on "things people were overheard to say while riding the bus." Most are at most chuckle-funny, not highly funny, but it's an interesting concept.

    Worst one I ever heard was someone explaining in considerable detail how he cheated on his taxes.

  11. Possibly a very good way to curtail annoyingly loud phone conversations said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 4:00 am

    […] Possibly a very good way to curtail annoyingly loud phone conversations […]

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