Your phone lights up with an unsolicited call. Do you a) panic and assume someone must have died, b) silence it and hope the caller gets the message, or c) answer immediately with a cheery, “Hello! How funny, I was just about to call you.” If c), you are part of a dying breed: people who actually like talking on the phone.
Indeed, phone calls have become such an intergenerational minefield that this week Debrett’s even issued an etiquette guide to help every age navigate them in 2023, issuing advice like, “Remember that some people, especially if they are young, can find unexpected calls alarming.” That kind of thing.
Yet the fact that phone calls are on the decline will come as no surprise to anyone over 60. If you are of a certain age you will already spend a large portion of your time trying to reach unresponsive children – them or younger colleagues who would rather you put your requests/complaints/helpful suggestions in a crisp WhatsApp message. And while you can remember a time when your day was punctuated by phone calls you will be aware that, for the rest of the world, texts, WhatsApps and DMs have taken their place.
Most of us these days exist in a world where friends and spouses, rather than phoning at lunch to relate what sort of day they are having, simply send an emoji with a frazzled expression. And old pals, rather than calling for a catch up, send a long voice note while en route to pilates.
But it also means we are simply talking less. Ofcom figures show that total fixed and mobile call volumes have dropped dramatically in the past decade, from 225 billion minutes in 2012 to 202 billion in 2022. At our garrulous, “It’s good to talk” peak in 2008, a sweet spot when everyone had both a mobile phone and a landline (and hadn’t yet developed a fear of picking up either), Britons spent 256 billion minutes on the phone. That’s 54 billion minutes less talking now, every year. 54 billion minutes more silence annually; 103,000 years – countless lifetimes’ worth of chat, gone.
So what changed? And at what cost?
Somewhere in the past 15 years, as communication became more and more digital and data packages for mobile phones began to trump “minutes”, we lost the art of the long and winding phone call.
There is a sense now that none of us have time to pick up the phone. Speed and efficiency beat conversation. Why would you spend 90 seconds talking when you could just fire off a quick text? But messaging can be a false economy. Often, you end up going back and forth on text when you could have got to the answer faster by simply having a quick conversation.
The hidden bonus in the phone call? Nuance and tone, for starters (the scourge of modern life is surely the misunderstood WhatsApp) but also the chance for some simple manners. The chance to ask after someone, to slip in a quick “anyway, you OK?” between the business and the admin.
It’s good for us too. In the pandemic, a clinical trial at the University of Texas at Austin found levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression were lowered in participants after four weeks of receiving regular phone calls. A call, said psychotherapist Haley Neidich, “has the capacity to offer a major mood boost and completely shift the course of your thinking”. “Hearing someone’s voice and really making an emotional connection is important,” said Neidich, suggesting people plan and keep a minimum of two “phone dates” per week. “Most of my clients who do this report a boost in their mood following the call.”
Younger people, for whom mental health problems have rocketed recently, could do with a bit of that beneficial connection. Yet they so abhor the cold call that Debrett’s insists a text is now required to alert them in advance if you’re planning to ring. And they really don’t like to hear: “I’m not ‘cold calling’ you, I’m your mother, not an energy provider, it doesn’t count.”
Debrett’s stresses that “because calls are becoming less common, people are more likely to react to them with panic or dread”. In 25 years, then, we have gone from phone calls being part of the fabric of everyday life to being an intrusion, a con, or the harbinger of doom.
The irony of that is that such trends are the price we are paying for the technology that was meant to bring us closer. A 2020 Ofcom study found people feel more connected than ever, believing they now “communicate more, and more easily, than in the past”. In lockdown, Zoom, WhatsApp and FaceTime kept the world alight (Zoom’s revenue quadrupled in the first six months of the pandemic; now, video calling being so accessible is one of the main obstacles for businesses trying to coax people back to offices).
In those months, being able to be in touch 24/7 kept businesses moving, industries afloat – and families in touch when planes were grounded. They also got certain politicians into a good deal of bother, but that’s another story. But now? Perhaps those apps are lulling us into a false sense of connection.
We are, after all, highly distractible – most of us listen better on the phone, with no awareness of what our face looks like in the corner of a screen. A WhatsApp message, meanwhile, can be drafted, redrafted, deleted immediately after sending and written again. It’s undoubtedly a great feat of modern telecommunications that you can sit on your sofa in Guildford and spend the whole evening WhatsApping back and forth with someone in Ulaanbaatar. But I’m not sure it can ever really offer the same level of intimacy as a phone call.
Debrett’s certainly doesn’t think so, advising that despite the growing tendency to favour texts over phone conversations “there are some instances where the human voice must take priority”. It’s fine to send “an effusive thank you” by text, but if condolences are required, you need to pick up the phone “and allow your voice to transmit sympathy”. Cut through “the protective veil of text messaging”, it urges. “Allow your own voice to do the talking.”
There’s hope yet. Though Ofcom says landline calls have fallen by 20 per cent year on year, so-called “dumbphones” are on the rise. A 2022 report showed sales of internet-free phones were due to hit one billion, up from 400 million in 2019, as Gen Z eschewed the smartphone in favour of a retro Nokia 3310. Now if they could only work out how to call people on them.