In the past year, I’ve been on a mission to pester as many people in my life as possible. The first victim was my editor, whom I abruptly asked one morning to stop messaging me about story ideas on our office’s chat platform, Slack. Instead, I said, let’s talk the ideas out over the phone. I soon did the same thing to a friend who’d texted to discuss a job offer he’d just received. A few weeks later, when another friend texted me for New York City apartment-hunting tips, I asked her my new favorite question in return: Do you want to give me a call?
The phone call has lost its primacy in American communication. By 2014, texting had become more common for Americans under 50. The popularity of text-based communication tools such as WhatsApp and Instagram direct messaging has exploded since. People currently in their 20s and 30s, in particular, have developed a reputation for being allergic to phone calls. The phone call, like chain restaurants and golf, is among the cultural institutions that Millennials might murder.
True to this generational stereotype, I long sent my own mother to voicemail and texted her to ask what she wanted. Instead of calling my hair salon to make an appointment, I’d simply let my roots grow for an extra six or eight weeks, until they bothered me enough to dial the number. No matter the task, I’d always text or email first. Was there an app for that? Even better. If all options failed, I’d simply prefer not to get what I wanted rather than talk to a live human. Phone calls force you to contend with the messy reality of living in a world where other people might need your attention without warning you through a calendar invite two weeks in advance. Phone calls don’t let you ignore a message for four days, confident in its innocuousness.
Nevertheless, I’m here today to confess my sins and ask forgiveness from all those whose voicemails I have not listened to. To fully repent, I must make clear what I now know to be the truth: Phone calls are good, actually.
One of the best arguments in favor of phone calls will be obvious to anyone who’s ever gone back and forth for three days via email trying to pick a spot for Tuesday’s happy hour. Guhan Subramanian, the director of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, which teaches business- and law-school students the finer points of conflict resolution, argues that spoken conversation accomplishes far more in a shorter amount of time. In any discussion, “people are asking questions, probing, asking follow-up questions,” he says. “It’s obviously a lot easier to do when you’re over the phone or in person, compared to by email or text.”
This difference is what first pushed me back to phone calls. I wanted to hear my editor’s reactions to my story ideas and work them out in real time, not watch a “Paul is typing …” graphic linger ominously for 30 seconds before I knew the verdict. (Hi, Paul.) With friends, too, I wanted to rekindle the energy of live conversation. I wanted to crack a joke and hear someone laugh. I wanted my thumbs to have the occasional night off.
With so many digital avenues now available for reaching someone, the problem with phone calls is not that they’re inconvenient. It’s that they’re gauche. Especially for young people who tend to use their phones constantly, text messaging has become a roiling conversation that never really begins or ends. There’s often just as strong an expectation of an immediate answer to a text as there has traditionally been to a phone call—a phenomenon familiar to anyone whose significant other has fussed at them for tweeting or posting to Instagram Stories while being left on read. A phone call might still carry a more explicit demand for attention, but it’s actually far easier to explain being unable to answer a call than a text.
I’m not advocating a wholesale rejection of text in favor of speaking. There are plenty of situations in which a text or email is plainly preferable, and for people with hearing impairments or other disabilities that make phone calls difficult, the development of real-time, text-based communication is a boon that shouldn’t be dismissed. For other people, a sense of anxiety can come from the on-the-spot nature of phone calls. Text communication allows anywhere from a moment to several days of self-editing.
But that can come with some drawbacks itself, according to Subramanian. “Over email, the message that’s received may not be the same as the message that’s sent,” he says. It’s missing the back-and-forth contextualization and clearer tone that spoken conversation provides.
Chatting on the phone provides the bliss of unreviewable, unforwardable, unsearchable speech. If something comes out a little weird, there’s no record of it (unless your conversation partner is secretly recording it, in which case you have deeper problems). If you misunderstand something, there’s no daylong email chain correcting your error. If a conversation has a tense moment, you can’t scroll back up to critique your performance until the heat death of the universe. Snapchat blew up a few years ago because pictures sent between users on the app disappeared 10 seconds after being viewed; talking to someone on the phone has provided the same freedom in verbal form since the days of Alexander Graham Bell.
Smartphones feel terrible to hold to your ear for more than a few minutes, but they make up for poor ergonomic design with one key feature: speakerphone. I often chat on the phone while lying on the couch, iPhone on my stomach, like I’m talking to a friend who’s excused herself to the kitchen to grab a seltzer—or a therapist sitting placidly outside of my field of vision. Afterward, I feel the same contented buzz I got from talking on the phone after school when I was 10, shortly before AOL Instant Messenger swept my generation onto the internet. It’s a feeling that text messages have never given me. (Although, it must be said: Don’t be the person who uses speakerphone in public. You live in a society.)
In hindsight, AIM might very well be the technology that sealed Millennials’ phone-call fates. For kids of that era, having a communication method that made after-school chats easier to conceal from parents provided a freedom that many people my age still ascribe to text-based messaging, long after the generation has taken the format’s convenience past its logical extreme. In place of the natural intimacy of verbal conversation, texters and technology companies have tried to retrofit emotional richness into messaging through abbreviation (lmao) and emoji. Those signifiers work to a certain extent, but there’s an irony to so many people mimicking the touchstones of spoken conversation on their phones when they’re just a button-press away from the real thing.
Jonny Gerkin, a psychiatrist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, thinks misconceptions about the phone call’s intrusiveness and inconvenience have probably scared plenty of people who like to chat on the phone away from suggesting the format. “[People] maybe feel like, in the culture they’re in, bringing that up will not be received very well,” he says. “But I’d say the majority of us have these same intuitions” about the phone’s conversational advantages. Text-skeptical people do rear their heads occasionally. In 2017, Wired even predicted that the phone call was poised for a comeback. It has yet to materialize, but hope springs eternal.
Gerkin has taken up the same tactic I have to test the waters: simply asking people if they’d like to give him a call. “The assumption that convenience means written, quick communication is a thing that needs to be challenged,” he says, even though it’s sometimes true. The trick, according to Gerkin, is to be more actively thoughtful about which medium might be best suited to a particular interaction. He nods to the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle, who argues that texting and emailing are often useful for quick, logistical, or low-priority communications, but that for more complex matters, spoken conversations can’t be replaced.
“Quick” communication and “complex” communication aren’t always distinct categories, though. In overlapping cases, the correct medium to use will have to be negotiated between conversation partners. Paul, my editor, is ambivalent about phone calls because his job requires much more multitasking than mine does, which means sometimes our priorities in the moment differ. [Editor’s note: Hi, Amanda.]
Thankfully, solving that problem is simple: Instead of calling him, I just ask via Slack if he wants to call me. Asking also lets those with more severe phone-related anxiety opt out, and it helps identify people in your social circle who, like you, are secret chat-wanters. Every single time I’ve asked a friend if they’d like to talk instead of text, they’ve responded enthusiastically.
As with many problems of shifting social norms that Millennials have encountered but not yet solved, Gen Z—kids and young adults currently between 7 and 22 years old—might be the group that digs itself out from its many, many inboxes. They text and DM too, of course, but the generation came of age with online video, and their facility with FaceTime, Skype, and other methods of video chat gives them an opportunity to develop conversational skills that older people might have lost.
Simply waiting for younger people to age into cultural prominence isn’t sufficient, however, Gerkin emphasizes. Millennials might need to more actively consider developing those skills themselves in order to maintain their relationships and social connections over the course of their lives. “Millennials get thrown under the bus all the time, but it’s one of those things that we’re going to have to respond to,” Gerkin says. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, that generation sucks’ and then just throw out a generation.”