Public Nuisance? Cell Phone Use Might Actually Spark Conversations with Strangers

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— Talking or texting on a cell phone in public might seem off-putting to people nearby, but a new study suggests that using mobile devices may actually help spark conversations with strangers.

The University of Michigan study examined how mobile communication influences the extent to which people engage with others in public. The new findings indicate that overall frequency of cell phone use in public does not cause them to shun nearby strangers. In fact, the result may be the opposite.

“Those who use the cell phone in public to get news have more relevant fodder for conversing with strangers and probably increased motivation to do so,” said Scott Campbell, the study’s co-author.

Campbell and Nojin Kwak, both researchers in the U-M Department of Communication Studies, conducted the study, and the findings appear in the current issue of Human Communication Research, available now online and in hard copy next month.

The researchers originally hypothesized that overall frequency of cell phone use in public settings would lead to having fewer conversations with strangers in these settings, however, results were not significantly negative or positive.

As a next step, the researchers accounted for different ways in which people tend to use cell phones (regardless of location), including coordinating plans, maintaining relationships, and searching for news. Use for maintaining relationships was associated with fewer conversations with strangers in public over time, while use for coordination and news were both associated with increased conversations in public.

The findings reveal that the situation greatly depends on the ways in which someone uses the technology, not just where and how much they use it.

The study’s data came from two waves of a national mail survey in the fall 2008. The first wave used 1,012 responses, and the second had 717 responses.

Respondents were asked how frequently they had engaged in a conversation with a stranger in a public place on any topic. A seven-point scale, ranging from “none in the last month” to “everyday,” was used.

For coordination, respondents were asked about how often they had contacted others via mobile communication to arrange meeting times and made contact with others to change plans. Relational use was measured by the frequency of using the mobile to call or text just to be social and to touch base just to say “hi” to someone. News use was measured by the extent to which respondents sought out information about what was going on in the news and had discussed politics or other news by mobile phone.

*Source: University of Michigan

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