As a teenager, before I learned to drive, my favorite extracurricular pastime was hanging out in my seafoam-green-and-pink accented bedroom (it was the '90s), my matching Swatch phone to my ear as I gabbed away to my BFFs about boys and school and the fun we might have if we ever got off the phone. The evenings would go by in a haze of chatting, and maybe also watching Beverly Hills 90210 with the phone pressed to my ear so my friend and I could gasp in unison at shocking Brandon/Brenda/Dylan/Kelly moments. "We're going to find that phone permanently fused to your face one of these days," my mother would say. Fast-forward to now, when you couldn't pay me to hold a phone to my ear while watching one of my favorite shows — though I've been known to tweet about a program all night long. My phone is far more likely to be fused to my hand than my face.
I'm not the only one. As Caeli Wolfson Widger wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine, even a call from a distraught relative nowadays is likely to be sent straight to voicemail to allow us to carry on with our other interactions: tweeting, texting, and emailing. She confesses that even when she has the time and privacy in which to talk, she has chosen not to, almost involuntarily. I know how she feels. I've ignored plenty of calls from friends, boyfriends, beloved family members. To make a phone call without extenuating circumstances has become akin to sitting on a subway floor. Weird. Socially unacceptable. Maybe even perverse. The only thing more perverse might be the refusal to answer a phone call from someone you care about. After many months of trying to convince myself otherwise, I've come to see "Fear of Phone" as a tremendous lose-lose.
FoP — not of the device itself, but of the traditional communication method the phone symbolizes (having to talk out loud, perhaps without preparation, THE HORROR) — is a common reaction to the formerly innocent, if unanticipated, ring ring ring of simpler times. (Of course, the anti-calling movement is certainly not new; the discussion surfaces again and again, with intelligent parties for and also against telephone conversations.) Today it's such that we run circles around social media trying to avoid phone calls, emailing or DMing or Gchatting repeatedly in parceled-out sentences instead of having one solid conversation, insisting on Facebook messages that unfortunately always seem to go ignored. If there's a way to communicate without our own voices (even to order lunch), we use it. Recently, a friend apologized for the socially unacceptable fault of actually calling me. How has it come to this?
Never before has the average person been able to interact in so many different ways, and from so many different places. We can tweet, text, Skype, Facetime, email, Facebook message, Tumbl, share via forums and on our preferred sites, and still use the old methods too: letters and telephones and handcrafted Post-it notes stuck to refrigerators, though we do so less and less because, perhaps, these latter forms seem to take more out of us than we have to give. That's also why, when they do happen, they are imbued with greater meaning. If someone calls, it must be serious. Oh god, not something serious! There's no time to handle serious. Shut. It. Down.
As a teenager, when I would spend hours on the phone long-distance to friends I'd met at camp, my mother would make me pay the bill. But the cost to me at that time was well worth what I got in return — friendship, collaboration, communication, living memories. Today, it seems the thing of greatest value has become our own time, time in which we ourselves decide how and when and in what short forms we will communicate. Often these are increasingly one-sided forms of communication, because they're about us, not anyone else. That which threatens to take too long, to task us too much, to be not exactly what we wanted, to be done to us rather than with us in mind, or to feel extraneous to our own purposes (what, I should answer you?), is cut out. We're less afraid of the phones, I think, than we are of some sort of phone entrapment. Who knows how long a call might go on, or what sort of things we might have to say? Why wade into the murky waters of a voice interaction — and actually have to devote energy to someone else? We churn ahead single-mindedly, bent on our own tasks, and our collective empathy withers as we subtweet about that friend who keeps leaving us voicemails.
Louis C.K. recently made the point that he thinks smartphones are taking away the ability to "be yourself and not be doing something." Our inability to have actual phone conversations is, I'd say, limiting our ability to be with other people. And being with other people is what society, even humanity, is about. Yet as we persist in ignoring one another, our communications become not only voiceless but often based on a lack of communication (see: radio silence, or the fade-out). Not answering the phone can speak volumes, but it is a wholly ineffective way to move anything forward, to share, to provide sympathy or one-on-one advice, to feel nuance. Sure, there are times in which you should call and times in which you should text, and there are times in which both parties should walk away and never look back. To manage your communication workload by prioritizing, recognizing the right medium for each of your many communication needs, and eliminating what you simply don't have time for is a fact of modern society, and it's only going to get more complicated, until we have lasers in our brains that read each others' thoughts (kidding. I hope). But routinely sending any caller who is not a collections agent to voicemail, even if you're doing nothing — and I am guilty of this, to be sure — is worrisome. It is something that doesn't seem to bode well, not for phones, but for humans.
Verbal communication offers room for plenty of things that digital communication does not: tone, accommodation (the way we match speaking styles for more effective conversations), better mediation of issues, an understanding of jokes, intimacy. A good phone call can provide us with far more in terms of emotional sustenance than can a many-favorited tweet (get on the phone with your adorable niece really quick and tell me I'm wrong). Beyond that, there's a mutual compact that exists with every phone call, just like with every in-person meeting. There's an investment there in another human being that simply doesn't exist in the same way online. You're giving of yourself and someone is also giving back to you, and you're doing it together, in real time, without the guards that digital communication affords, and sometimes requires.
There are times when just answering the phone and saying "hello" can seem a bar too high. But the more you give to a conversation, to another person, the more you are likely to get in return — and that two-sided give-and-take between humans is really kind of what life is about, no matter such interactions take place. Remember: The purpose of a phone is to interact with others, not yourself...or at least, it used to be.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about phone calls, though, is how enjoyable and inherently satisfying they really can be. Just as there are some people who ignore phone calls, there are others who pick up, who listen, who usually make you laugh, who let you cry, and who always leave you feeling better than you did before you called. These people should be thanked, not judged, and for my part, I'll do better to try to emulate them. After all, at the end of a life well-lived, no one ever says, "You know what I regret? I talked to my friends too often."
Jen Doll's first book, Save the Date, will be out in May. Author photo by Sarah Shatz.
Contact Jen Doll at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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