The Dying Art of the Phone Call

Do people still talk on the phone? Not like they used to.

I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone on the phone.

And I don’t mean just speaking to them…I mean really talking. The kind of phone conversation that tries to connect you with another person in the same way that you would in person.

It’s not like these sorts of conversations were never a part of my life. Especially after college, I would sometimes talk on the phone with a geographically distant friend for an hour or more to catch up on each other’s lives. When I was dating my wife, I would call her on days that we weren’t able to hang out in person so we could still get some time together.

But this kind of thing doesn’t really happen anymore. My catch-up sessions with long-distance friends either don’t happen at all or or occur when we are together for a wedding or happen in a far-to-brief texting exchange or take place via a painstakingly scheduled FaceTime video call session — which is very different from a traditional audio phone call. Even my one-year-old daughter is already more accustomed to video calls than regular calls. When she watches a video of someone on my phone, she frequently says “Hi!” with the expectation that they will respond, like I do when I video call her while traveling or while eating lunch at work.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, I love the convenience and distance of being able to text or email in some circumstances. I used to think phone calls were extremely awkward, and it took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of making phone calls as a way of staying in touch. On the other hand, talking on the phone is a skill in its own right. There is an immediacy to a phone call that forces you to be OK with pauses and silence that don’t necessarily signal the end of the call, and are just part of the back and forth flow of the conversation.

This immediacy creates an intimacy that you don’t have when you’re on a video call, despite the fact that you can see someone’s face. A traditional phone call both grants and requires a stronger connection between the two people on the line. Phone calls literally grant a stronger connection, as in my experience they are far less likely to randomly konk out in the middle of a caller’s anecdote or unexplainably buffer during an important conversation. There are no technological excuses. Phone calls also require a stronger connection as each party needs to pay close attention to what the other person is saying to know when to respond, the emotions being expressed and when to wrap up the call. There are no facial cues. You won’t get distracted by the caller’s surroundings. On a phone call, it’s all about the other person, and you won’t be tempted to keep randomly staring at a thumbnail video of yourself in the corner of the screen.

I assume that traditional phone calls will one day be completely replaced by face-to-face video calls, and perhaps by then VR and other emerging technologies will allow these calls to be as realistic as sitting next to someone and having a conversation — no buffering required.

If that’s the case, I fear future generations will be missing out to some extent. Learning the art of the phone call is a valuable experience in terms of human interaction — forcing you to join in a delicate dance with the person on the other side of the line and engage with them in a way that uniquely puts them first. There are lessons learned in effective phone communications that inform general human interaction…and we might be losing something in the long run.

Wow. I never thought I would find myself writing a post that defends talking on the phone. What’s next? A treatise on the value of handwritten letters delivered via postal mail?

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