As a kid, and especially as a teenager, the phone was everything. I talked for hours and hours with friends, about nothing and everything. But, in my late twenties, as e-mail became more significant (and more draining – my inbox recently surpassed 50,000 messages), I began missing those meandering conversations, and started calling people. Talking at length to one new-ish friend of mine was instrumental in the formation of our friendship, because on the phone we had the time and the forum for ideas, stories and jokes that would never come up otherwise.
A 2012 study published in the academic journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that “human speech” can reduce the stress-related hormone cortisol, and increase the feel-good hormone oxytocin. It feels good to talk. I wanted to know what would happen if I totally reverted to the phone – if what I had achieved with one friend could happen again, and if I could replace the crush of e-mails with something better. So I spent a week only communicating by phone: When I needed to initiate a conversation, I called; instead of returning e-mails, texts and instant messages, I called.
I thought the experiment would be marginally annoying for me and my friends. Instead, I found out that many people have moved so far beyond using their $500 phones as actual phones that just getting them to answer was a challenge. The degree to which technology has changed my life – and, commensurately, my friendships – was surprising. Phone conversations are not a part of my friends’ lives. (Midway through my experiment, I realized I didn’t even have numbers for two of my closest friends.) When my friends did pick up, it was hard to transition into longer, more meaningful conversations.
Robert Weiss, co-author of the forthcoming Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, says it was different before caller-ID and “decline” buttons. “You’d always pick up the phone, because somebody important might be calling. That idea of each communication bearing similar weight is really lost with the ability to identify who that person is.” While there might be more frequent interaction between two people with text and IM and e-mail, Weiss says there is also a loss of spontaneity.
In my crew, people have also lost either the interest or the ability to communicate that way. In several instances I was cut off mid-conversation when a friend arrived at home, wanted to check e-mail or had something else to do, which made me feel more disconnected than if I hadn’t called at all. To me, speaking on the phone is part of being close.
Toronto-based therapist Joanna Seidel disagrees. “I don’t necessarily think that that’s part of being in a relationship,” she says. Seidel points out that 30 years ago, traditional families meant that both partners “had more time to connect over the phone and in person. What is limiting us [now] are time constraints.” It’s inappropriate to call someone, especially on a household land line, past a certain time, but texting and e-mail “gives us [an opportunity] to contact someone at all hours, every day, without disrupting.”
Anthony Tjan, the CEO of venture capital firm Cue Ball and co-author of the book Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, says that it is important to anticipate what the other person might be doing when we place a call. Tjan suggests being clear at the start of a phone conversation about what the call should accomplish, like a meeting agenda. “Setting up the context at the beginning is what’s important,” he says. “You have to start with choosing the channel [of communication], and then try to map the channel.” So, if you’re going to use the phone, decide how you’ll best use it.
It makes sense, then, that an uncomfortable outcome of my experiment was how rude it made me feel. Phone calls have become an intrusion. (Under normal circumstances, my friends often set a time to call, like a “phone date.”) I felt even ruder when I left voice-mail – as Weiss points out, a voice-mail “demands a response,” which people who are used to controlling their communications will just reject. This holds up among my friends: Very few of them check messages, and generally consider leaving one to be an aggressive imposition.
There were upsides: The best and most unexpected thing I discovered was how using the phone changed the content – not just the length or the quality – of a communication. When a friend instant-messaged me to gossip about someone we know, I called her instead of messaging back, and when we talked about the person over the phone, it felt meaner and not fun, so we stopped. In another instance, a friend sent me a fury of sharp texts, typing things she would unlikely say directly. I called her; we resolved the problem. Texts and IMs are ideal for time-sensitive, detail-oriented missives, but when emotions are involved relying on them is problematic. Tjan says that texts and e-mails are often used as “a shield,” even though, “We’ve all been there, trying to resolve an issue back and forth by e-mail, when a coffee or picking up the phone could solve it in a fraction of the time.” I like the idea of approaching more detailed or difficult conversations like an adult, by talking on the phone.
That said, avoiding a hard conversation is still appealing. One day I had to cancel plans with my ex-boyfriend because I had a chemical burn (don’t ask), so I called instead of texting as I usually would. As Weiss says, “You text because you don’t want to deal with them, you don’t want to be bothered by what [they need].” What might have been a quick text, absolving me from responsibility and his disappointment, became a long conversation. A text could and would not have made me feel better, but the phone call – with a familiar voice and words of concern, and without the sense that I was casually bailing – did.
For me, going all-phone was largely frustrating: My calls went unanswered and unreturned, simple communications took longer, and when I did get someone on the line it wasn’t always as satisfying as I wanted it to be. But there were a few instances of real, unexpected connection. I couldn’t replicate what I have with one friend and our “phone dates” with anyone else, but I don’t have to. I’d rather make the best use of what’s available. Recently, when my friend Matt and I hung up after talking for a while on the phone, we switched to FaceTime so that he could show me how to use my long-neglected espresso maker. Later, I texted him a thank you. That, to me, was perfect.