Modern Walkie Talkies

Watching the way people interact with technology can lead to some interesting observations. One of the more interesting trends that I've witnessed over the last couple of years is the number of people who use their phones as walkie-talkies and the number of people in the park sharing their conversations seems to be on the increase. This is something of a surprise to me as there were a number of unspoken rules around using speaker phone first in the office, then with our flip phones. This practice was tolerated with some one-to-one conversations and frowned upon when there were "secret listeners" on one end of the line1. As smart phones grew in popularity it seemed that speaker phone usage dropped significantly, but maybe I just wasn't paying attention, because the practice seems to be everywhere recently … and I don't understand why.

Captain Kirk Using a Communicator

When I watched science fiction shows as a child, it was always surprising to see people answering calls publicly. The captain of a starship might receive a call while attending a diplomatic function. Members of a scout party would be hailed from their ship for a status update. A person hiding behind a box could have their location and identity revealed by a communications device blaring out their name and affiliation. If the recipient of the call could answer, they would generally move one or two steps away and take the call publicly, allowing all those in earshot to hear the exchange. Why would anybody want this? Would it not be better to speak in private? It's bad enough eavesdroppers would hear one side of the converstaion, so did they need to hear the whole exchange?

Most people will quickly understand that this is simply for the sake of the medium. In order for the viewer to have the same understanding of a situation as the characters in a story, it simply makes sense to have communications devices all use some form of speaker phone unless the viewer must be kept in the dark. In the real world, though, there is no need for nearby witnesses of a verbal exchange to hear either side of a conversation. Phone calls, in many cases, are private affairs between two people.

Or so I have been led to believe with years of conditioning from my mother to not listen to other people's conversations.

This morning, while walking Nozomi in the nearby park, I saw a man walking his dog and having a conversation on his phone with the speaker phone. He held the device upside down so the microphone and speakers were facing the sky and didn't seem to mind that the volume was loud enough that I could hear the other person from clear across a 15-metre stretch of lawn. As Nozomi and I got closer, his call came to a natural conclusion and our dogs started to sniff each other. This was a prime opportunity to find out why this person uses a speaker phone in a public space despite the audience.

すみませんですけど、携帯電話のスピーカー機能を使用していることに気づかずにはいられませんでした。なぜこれをやっているのですか?2, I asked.

"The normal speaker is too quiet. I can't hear the other person even at full volume."

Ah. That would explain it. More than this, I agree that the normal speaker is too quiet. This has been one of my long-standing complaints about answering calls on modern phones3. The slightest amount of background noise can completely drown out the person on the other end of the call. When I'm expecting a phone call, I'll usually have some noise-cancelling headphones paired and ready in advance if I'm not at home and alone. Why I never bothered to ask someone before today is bizarre, given the number of people Nozomi and I have met and conversed with over the last couple of years4.

While I doubt the earpiece speakers will get much better in the mini-tablets that we call phones5, I do wonder whether more people will start to carry Bluetooth headsets. Using a phone like a walkie-talkie is certainly feasible when walking the dog in the park, but it's completely untenable in environments like shopping mall food courts, sports events, or -- thinking about opposites -- libraries.

  1. Back when I worked at a printing company in Canada, I had a boss that would regularly use speaker phone so that "listeners" who were in the room but silent could hear the responses first hand. He did this to me exactly once before I stopped communicating any sort of news that could be perceived as negative over the phone.

  2. Excuse me for asking but, I noticed you using the speaker phone function. Why do you do this?

  3. The SonyEricsson T616 that I briefly owned in the mid-2000s until it was "lost" on a bus was the worst phone I've ever had to listen to. Unless you were in a anechoic chamber with the volume at max, you couldn't hear the other person. Period. I was happy to "lose" that $750 piece of crap and go back to a used Nokia 8081 I'd picked up off eBay. Not only could you hear the other person, but the T9 keyboard rocked.

  4. This is one of the positive outcomes from podcasting, I think. I've learned how to ask better questions.

  5. As more phones go with an all-glass front, how will the sound reach the ear? If the glass itself is going to double as a speaker, then it may as well be a larger one.