March 20, 2019 | Story | No Comments
Phone calls are back.
I noticed this a few months ago, when I received five phone calls in the span of a single afternoon from people who said they didn't feel like sending a text. Weirder yet, not one of them was a parent, sibling, or telemarketer—the usual suspects on my recent calls list. They were all friends, some of whom I've never spoken to on the phone.
As a journalist, I regularly make and receive calls, so it didn't annoy me. But it did confuse me. When did people start making social calls again? And since when is anyone tired of texting? Is talking on the phone, after years of deliberate avoidance, suddenly cool?
I'm not the only one who noticed this.
When asked, my buddy Eamon, a 29-year-old video producer, told me he started making more calls a few years ago after moving to New York—a city where most people balance hectic work and social schedules. "Phone calls," he says, "are much more efficient for everyone involved."
"I've always liked calling people," added my 20-something friend, Rebecca. "But maybe there’s a renewed desire for authentic communication."
This is anecdotal proof at best. But is this really a thing? "If it's a trend, it's one that's based on evidence," says Sherry Turkle, who leads MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. Turkle's spent her career studying how young people use technology to communicate, but to be clear, not even she has statistical proof to prove the phone call is back. Do a Google search and you'll find dozens of stories lamenting its death. Look for a report to confirm the uptick in phone calls among the 18 to 34 set and you'll find just the opposite.
Yet in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In The Digital Age, Turkle argues that teens and young adults are ready to change how they communicate. She spent several years interviewing hundreds of them and discovered they are growing tired of text-based communication. "I found texting fatigue among young people whose parents had been unavailable to them, except on a device," she says. "The hopefulness in Reclaiming Conversation comes from interviewing a generation who took their devices for granted, had seen that too much texting had undermined friendships and family relationships, and were ready to talk and call."
Of course, not everyone wants to trade typing for talking. Few things in modern communication, save for read receipts, remain so divisive as the phone call. For some people, receiving a call elicits a particularly Pavlovian response: anxiety. "Generally the ringing of my phone sends me into panic," a 39-year-old friend told me. "No one calls anymore, so when they do it's potentially going to be something heavy."
"If you're calling me someone better be dead,” another friend said on Facebook. Others say they find calls intrusive or emotionally demanding. "It's more of a social contract than a text convo," an acquaintance said. "It takes more emotional preparedness."
In her book, Turkle explains that the appeal of texting is rooted in the idea of control. "If we text rather than talk, we can have each other in amounts we can control," she writes. "And texting and email let us present the self we want to be. We can edit and retouch." But that lack of intimacy may be why young people increasingly place a call. "The pendulum has begun to swing the other way," says Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University. "It's a correction of errors."
Efficiency explains some of the correction. "If you want to say 'running late,' a text is great," Tannen says. "If you're trying to negotiate something, texting suddenly becomes less efficient." But if you dig deeper, you realize this isn't about productivity, but understanding. "I just think there’s too much potential for ambiguity in text," says Zack Schamberg, a 29-year-old habitual FaceTimer. A phone call decreases the odds of something being misinterpreted, he says. A video call reduces them even further.
A study titled The Effects of Text, Audio, Video, and In-Person Communication On Bonding Between Friends backs this up. Three years ago, a team of UCLA psychologists asked college-aged women how various forms of communication impact their feelings of intimacy. To no one's surprise, the students felt most connected when talking with friends in person, followed by video chat, phone calls, and finally text messages.
psychologist Lauren Sherman
"The vast majority of young women we surveyed preferred in-person communication most of the time," says Lauren Sherman, one of the study's authors. "This is different than a phone conversation, but it does suggest that young people are aware that different types of communication serve various purposes."
The UCLA study shows that texting will remain a popular form of communication, but there's a growing desire to place a phone call or start a video chat. Making a phone call might feel subversive to anyone who's never used a landline phone, but as people get more comfortable talking to objects (hello, Alexa), it's easy to see that returning to personal relationships, too.
As an ardent fan of phone calls, I'd like to believe that everyone will start dialing the phone at least occasionally. Tannen isn't sure that will happen. In some ways, communication preferences are like fashion—the more people who get in on the trend, the more normal it seems. But you can't take a one-size-fits-all approach. "It's important to know the habits of who you're communicating with," she says. Shifting from a texting relationship to a calling one may be awkward. Your conversations may be marked by uncomfortable pauses, interruptions, and things you wish you hadn't said. Is it riskier than sending an emoji? Sure. But it's also more intimate. And that makes it worth so much more than a smiley face with heart eyes.CULTURE