Thursday, October 7, 2010

The science of halfalogues

I just learned a new word: halfalogue. Even without a definition, I knew what it meant. What a perfect word to describe hearing only half a phone conversation (or any conversation between two people where one voice is undecipherable).

It seems that scientists have discovered an important truth about halfalogues. They are more distracting than hearing a full dialogue. This conclusion was drawn after many people were tested doing computer tasks while conversations ran (at varying volumes) in the background. Subjects kept their concentration better when full conversations were playing than when half-conversations were playing.

I laughed aloud as I read the findings of this study in today's Wall Street Journal. All my life I've known how distracting just a one-sided conversation is, from my kindergarten years while my mother chatted on the telephone with her friends (I would question her as soon as she hung up--"What's wrong with Susie?"), and even the phone calls to the grocer to place the semi-weekly order ("Did he have liver? Do I have to eat it?"). How often I sat in the kitchen straining to hear (or listened from the top of the stairs after being sent to bed) the conversations of my parents and their friends socializing. I could never hear the whole thing, just pieces and snippets--enough to make my imagination go into overtime.

I have learned not to interrupt him when Hubby is on the phone. Even if he says something I think is erroneous, I wait until he's finished, because--as he is quick to point out--I don't know the context because I can't hear the other side of the conversation. It's easy to get the other side from him, however, not like hearing total strangers' halfalogues. I love listening to those!

It's the cell phone calls that really suck me in--whether they are happening outside my car in a ferryboat line, in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the next table at a restaurant or a theatre lobby. I find myself imagining what's being said on the other end, and even--several times I have written a short story based on what I had creatively filled in as I listened. Here are two halfalogues that inspired me within the last few years:

"No, Grandfather, I haven't had a drop since that night." . . . "No, I'm not sh-ttin' you . . . even though Johnny might have told you different" . . . "I miss you, Grandfather. When are you getting out?" . . .

"Don't write these down--2, 17, 9." . . . "Yup, like a padlock: right, left, right." . . . "The stuff is right there in a bag." . . . "When you're done, call the other number. Hang-up, then call again and I'll answer."

You get the picture. Part of it is the writer in me, part of it is the nosy person in me, part of it is my innate curiosity. But now I know I'm not an anomaly, but simply reacting normally to the distraction of the halfalogue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard an interview on NPR the other day referring to "halfalogue" and was trying to find more info on it. I decided to try an experiment with my 13yo son. While driving him to school, I pretended to take a cell phone call. I went through 1 side of a supposed conversation with his mom on the other side. My side sounded like I was responding to her telling me that our daughter had broken her arm and was getting a pink cast and that I wanted to sign it, etc... I ended the conversation just as we arrived at school. My son couldn't contain himself. He HAD to know what the deal was. I told him to tell me what he thought it was about when I picked him up from school. There were cars lined up behind us, so I had to go now.