Help explain this unusual cell phone behavior
April 21, 2009 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Why do some people find it necessary to take their cell phone away from their ear and speak direct into the microphone? It's not as if they are trying to speak in a lower vice to be courteous, or that they are using the speakerphone or push-to-talk function. I find it odd, I don't understand why and I don't really want to ask the person doing it (unless you do it, if so, "why"). Thanks!
posted by mhm to Technology (35 answers total)
I do it when my elderly, hard-of-hearing father can't hear me. Also when talking to an interactive phone menu, because I find that the ambient noise can throw the response of some of those things off.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:40 AM on April 21, 2009

I see this all the time and just assumed that either A) the speaker believes they sound better on the other side of the conversation or B) they're trying to minimize the amount of time that the phone is on the side of their head, thus minimizing the danger of whatever is dangerous about having a cell phone near your head.
posted by jquinby at 10:40 AM on April 21, 2009

Perhaps they know their phone model sucks?
posted by milarepa at 10:42 AM on April 21, 2009

I think it's related to the type of conversation you're having. Holding the phone away from your ear and directly in front of your mouth adds emphasis, like slamming a door might do when you're frustrated.
posted by nitsuj at 10:48 AM on April 21, 2009

I have wondered about this too. Usually the people I see doing it are from a much lower class, so at the time I assumed it had something to do with phone quality. Perhaps cheap phones have crappy speakers that you need to speak directly into. If everyone you know is poor, then everyone will use the phone that way and you'll just think it's normal to use a phone that way and keep doing it even long after the microphone quality of phones have improved, or after you've left your lower class upbringings.
posted by brenton at 10:52 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I do it because my stupid phone heats up after a minute and makes my ear uncomfortably sweaty.
posted by jamaro at 10:54 AM on April 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with nitsuj. It also gives your eyes something to focus on as if you are looking at the other person on the phone. It gives a lot more satisfaction to face your cell phone, tell Time Warner they are incompetent idiots and slame the phone shut than doing it when the phone is up to your ear.
posted by spec80 at 10:54 AM on April 21, 2009

I do this when I'm in a noisy room. It's usually accompanied by my hand creating a tunnel from my mouth to the phone.

I also do this instead of raising my voice when the person on the other end can't hear me OR if I need to lower my voice when I'm on the phone (maybe in a quiet waiting room, elevator, etc.). I can't stand loud cell phone talkers so I make every effort to not be one.
posted by simplethings at 10:54 AM on April 21, 2009

They may have phone with the push-to-talk feature that Nextel popularized years ago. This essentially makes the phones act like walkie-talkies, so instead of having a normal conversation you have a back-and-forth where the responding party generally comes through over the speakerphone instead of the earpiece. It is possible to switch it to just the earpiece though.

Sometimes the PTT calls are charged at lower rates than regular calls, or an unlimited amount is included with the monthly fee.
posted by odinsdream at 10:55 AM on April 21, 2009

I see you covered that in your question. Sorry.
posted by odinsdream at 10:56 AM on April 21, 2009

Some people have trouble with the concept that the microphone doesn't need to be directly next to your mouth. Small cell phones don't seem to be able to work if you think the mic needs to be in front of your mouth. Their belief in where the mic needs to be supersedes the reality of the fact that the phones work fine when held against your ear.
posted by GuyZero at 11:00 AM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

My mother (not low class, just low tech) does this with her current flip phone. My theory (in her case) is she is used to the short candy bar style phone she had before....and thought this practice was necessary because of the distance between the mic and her mouth. On preview...what GuyZero said.
posted by hellogoodbye at 11:03 AM on April 21, 2009

I think it's for the same reason that people hold the little hands-free ear-piece-cord-mounted microphone thingie up to their mouths--they don't really believe that the microphone will work unless it's right up close to their mouth. I even see Blackberry earpice wearers turning their heads in the direction of the earpiece when they talk, which, of course, moves the earpiece, too.

On preview, what GuyZero said.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:03 AM on April 21, 2009

I used to do this, but it was so that I could speak in a lower voice.

I still do it sometimes with my iPhone, but only when I have regular, non-headset headphones attached. It would just be strange to hold the phone up to my ear since I can already hear the other party through my earbuds, but I need to keep the iPhone's mic near my head for them to hear me.
posted by onshi at 11:07 AM on April 21, 2009

Sometimes on the cellphone, I get "echos" of my own voice when talking. Maybe?
posted by dwbrant at 11:07 AM on April 21, 2009

I don't find it that unusual - the mic is closer to your mouth as well as sound being directed into it. Good for speaking softly or when you're on speaker and need to sound clear.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:14 AM on April 21, 2009

I do this because I have the paranoid feeling that over time, having a phone that emits low levels of radiation next to my skull will start to f*#k up my brain somehow.
posted by cwarmy at 11:36 AM on April 21, 2009

When I hold my phone near my ear for more than 5 minutes I get a terrible headache on that side. Like cwarmy I'm afraid of the radiation and the pain is a signal to move the phone away from my head. And someday remember to buy an earpiece.
posted by ladypants at 11:58 AM on April 21, 2009

The thing is that if your mouth is closer to the mike, less ambient sound will be transmitted through the mike and the signal-to-noise ratio will be improved. This actually does make a difference if the person or machine you're speaking with can't hear you very well. Try it and see.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:10 PM on April 21, 2009

Lots of phones put the antenna under the microphone these days (the RAZR pioneered that particular form factor). So holding it closer to your mouth won't help with exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
posted by zsazsa at 12:20 PM on April 21, 2009

Maybe it's so they can't be interrupted by the person on the other end of the phone.
posted by bensherman at 1:03 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a conch piercing and it hurts if I press the phone to it. Sometimes I switch ears but if it's quiet enough that I can still hear the other person speaking from the... ummm... ear-hole... I will pull the phone back from my head.

Also it makes me feel like I'm on Star Trek :)
posted by cranberrymonger at 1:14 PM on April 21, 2009

ladypants: The radiation is not giving you a headache.
posted by odinsdream at 1:17 PM on April 21, 2009

I do this from time to time. Personally I just find it more comfortable to hold the phone in front of me than holding it up against my ear, especially for long conversations. Frankly this thread could do without the class slurs and implications of insanity, when it's just a different style of behaviour. People use all sorts of things in ways that you might consider sub-optimal, but that's life.
posted by iivix at 1:20 PM on April 21, 2009

odinsdream: Something is giving me a headache. It could be the heat. It could be the noise. It could be electromagnetic radiation. It could be the strain of cocking my head in a listening position. It could be any number of things. It's hard to say for sure without doing an experiment.

Also, I notice that oil builds up on my phone when I've been holding it to my face. People may choose to hold their phone away to avoid trapping oil against their skin.
posted by ladypants at 1:33 PM on April 21, 2009

Holding the microphone closer to your mouth can sometimes increase the signal-to-noise ratio (more voice, less background) in a noisy environment, especially on phones that don't have good noise-cancellation features. However if you yell too loud or speak into it too directly, you'll overdrive the microphone and not get anything intelligible out.

That said, I suspect a lot of people move the phone from ear to mouth out of habit, or because they don't believe a phone can be the size of a pack of gum (with the mic nowhere near their mouth) and still get good quality. I have some friends and family members who are like this ... they just flat-out don't believe that the phone can "hear" them when it's held to their ear, even when the audio is just fine that way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:39 PM on April 21, 2009

It could be electromagnetic radiation.

Not according to science and extensive tests conducted on the subject.

Try holding a rock to your head in the same position for the same amount of time. You should see the same effects.
posted by GuyZero at 1:40 PM on April 21, 2009

I do that occasionally if I'm arguing with someone. The person is talking very loudly so the phone doesn't need to be up against my ear, and I'm trying to emphasize what I'm saying so I hold it closer to my mouth.

I know - very productive way to have a conversation.
posted by lullaby at 1:45 PM on April 21, 2009

re: GuyZero, I just tried it with an eraser. Indeed, I was surprised at how uncomfortable it was. Still, the perception of damage due to radiation is very real. According to the NYTimes, the topic is still controversial among brain surgeons. And damage may not correlate with discomfort. I think there is still some disagreement in scientific circles about whether long term exposure to the electromagnetic radiation from cell phones may lead to physiological changes.
posted by ladypants at 1:55 PM on April 21, 2009

I see this practice frequently on reality shows and every time the phone is on speaker. I assume that it is so that the microphone recording sound for the TV show can pick up both sides of the conversation better.

Perhaps people are just doing what they see on TV?
posted by Xalf at 2:00 PM on April 21, 2009

Ergonomically, it makes sense that the thing you listen to is by your ear and the thing you talk into is by your mouth. In addition, those of us who grew up with old-fashioned corded desk phones and wall phones feel more comfortable with that arrangement. I'd actually pay extra for a phone that had the speaker by my ear, the microphone by my mouth, buttons large enough that I could push, and a screen large enough that I could see.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:38 PM on April 21, 2009

It is ignorant, regardless of class. Indeed, it is so you don't have to listen to what the other person is saying. Which is usually "I can't hear you, you are breaking up, please leave the crowded room you are in." Because what else could it be? The act of removing the listening part of the equation, no matter what the supposed justification, means only one thing: I care more about what *I* am saying than I care what you are saying.
posted by gjc at 6:05 PM on April 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

It is possible that ignorance or class have to do with it, but it seems unlikely: nobody in this thread has mentioned the kind of microphone that is usually found in cell phones, and Kadin2048 is the first to mention that cell phones include noise-cancellation features.

And there I am, wild-ass guessing like there's no tomorrow: microphones used in sound reinforcment do benefit from being as close as possible from the source to avoid unwanted signal; that's why they place the commonly-seen Countryman E6 close to the edge of the performer's mouth. But as Kadin2048 notes, you could probably overload the microphone (or the circuitry behind it) with a too-loud sound.

I vote habit [you can place the mouthpiece of classic handsets next to your mouth] and a [probably correct] guessing of the physics and capacities of the phone by the users.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:42 PM on April 21, 2009

And while we're in semi-informed territory: suppose we can model the mouth as a point source (big assumption), and that when we hold the phone "normally", the microphone is 1 inch from the source. If we move it to 0.1 inch from the source, assuming the inverse square law holds , we get: (1/0.1)^2 = 100 times the pressure level at the microphone, that is, +20 dB. Generally, we perceive a 10 dB difference as twice as loud, so assuming there is no compression or other processing going on (big assumption), our interlocutor would perceive our voice 4 times as loud.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:54 PM on April 21, 2009

(The three big problems with my discussion: the microphone could be directional, there is almost certainly some processing applied to its output, and at this range, modeling the vocal system as a point source is probably ludicrous.)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:58 PM on April 21, 2009

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