As a pre-teen, all I wanted, more than anything, was a telephone in my room – so I could talk about boys unobserved, without having to muffle my face in the hall coat rack. Clarissa Explains it All had a bedroom phone. So did The Babysitters Club. None of them ever had to answer it by reeling off their entire telephone number, either. My social life was being stunted by my family’s refusal to move with the times.
What I didn’t know was that in a few short years, the idea of standing in one predetermined spot to make a phone call would seem laughably obsolete (unless my o2 signal is on the blip) – while at the same time, my fear of other people overhearing would have largely disappeared too and I’d be conducting most of my private conversations on the bus or while queuing for a cashpoint.
The other irony is that now, of course, I hate phone calls.
Seriously, hate them. Don’t we all these days? Ofcom certainly think so – in 2012 it discovered that calls to both landlines and mobiles are falling rapidly, while, quelle surprise, texting, email and social networking are the most popular forms of communication for UK adults.
Meanwhile telephonophobia, as it’s pleasingly called, the form of social anxiety disorder that renders people terrified of phone calls, is no longer as debilitating as it used to be because the majority of office workers now prefer to conduct business via email. Which won’t be surprising to many of you either, particularly if, like me, you’re the type who always hopes it’ll go to voicemail.
Trying to explain to a colleague the other day why I fell into this camp, I decided it was mainly a reluctance to be put on the spot.
‘If someone calls me,’ I explained, ‘it’s demanding. I have to stop what I’m doing, and answer their questions right there and then. There’s no time for me to have a little think, draft out a good response or google the answers.’
‘But you can just tell them you don’t have the answers’, he reasoned.
‘But then I look like I don’t know what I’m doing, and they may as well have just emailed in the first place. Also, it’s more efficient because we don’t have to do small talk.’
‘But you don’t have to do small talk on a phone call if you don’t want to.’
‘Well that’s a lie, of course you do. Small talk is basically the law. Also…’
‘Yes?’ he asked, brow furrowed like someone trying to sympathise with an idiot.
‘Also, what if I need the loo?’
Because there’s that, too. One of the glorious gifts of the digital age has been customisation – we tailor our communication to suit us. That means an email can be answered comfortably at my convenience, preferably with an empty bladder, while a phone call might leave me hopping from one foot to the other for an hour because I’m too polite to put them off.
And mad though I might sound, the internet is awash with people who feel the same. Jess Cartner-Morley at the Guardian. This dude at Tech Crunch. This lady at the New York Times. There’s something about phone calls that say ‘urgency’, and that urgency triggers panic. Where once we raced out of bed muttering ‘this can’t be good news’ when the landline rang at 2am, now any phone call at any time has the potential to spell disaster or chaos. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they just text?
Maybe it’s something to do with intimacy – I don’t freak out at phone calls from my family, close pals or boyfriend, but then I also know I could cheerfully tell them all to go away if needed. Meanwhile, everyone else comes with a one-two punch of intrusion and being too important or formal to ignore.
It goes both ways, too. I’ll often find myself texting ‘Hello, I’m here!’ having agreed an hour before to give someone a ring when I arrived, for fear of looking needy. Even when someone phones me, I’ll text back ‘Did you call?’ as a precautionary buffer.
What am I afraid of? I suppose I’m afraid that one day, someone will answer the phone ‘WHAT? WHAT DO YOU WANT? You think you’re IMPORTANT, DO YOU?’ and I’ll have to crawl under a duvet and weep forever. There’s a reason socially awkward people love the internet so much – it’s a leveller. Put shy conversationalists behind a keyboard and they can turn into quick-fingered Oscar Wildes.
Besides, services like WhatsApp and iMessage are keeping short, immediate exchanges alive too, so critics can’t claim that the conversation is dying along with our landlines. You could even argue that so much time spent writing is boosting our verbal dexterity; in the wincingly-titled Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, linguist David Crystal claimed that texting actually improves literacy, especially for children and teens. We all know Jane Austen would have used the dancing lady emoji if she’d had it.
But the sceptics can, however, warn that we might be missing out on some health benefits of voice-on-voice contact. ‘Hearing someone’s voice is not only able to convey tone and sincerity, but also identity,’ says US psychologist Leslie Seltzer, who last year presented a study that found higher levels of ‘love hormone’ oxytocin were released when teenage girls spoke about a stressful event, as opposed to just texting.
It’s far easier to cover up or fake emotion in a typed message than it is to hide it in your voice, too – which is a blessing when you’re asking for pay rise or pretending to be breezy about your ex, but can mean we miss out on the chance to become more confident having difficult conversations. ‘The complexity and messiness of human communication gets shortchanged,’ says psychologist and texting-researcher Sherry Turkle. ‘Those things are what lead to better relationships.’
Still, if messaging has sparked a renaissance for the written word then it can’t be too long before something else does the same for speech. Phone calls are fast becoming quaintly retro, and as we all know, there’s nothing the digital age loves more than a little nostalgia.
Image: Al Ibrahim
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