Remember when we used to talk to each other on the telephone? I mean in real words, using our actual voices? Yes, really.
A guy I know told me today “I’ve connected with more friends by telephone in the last week than I did in the previous decade.” True. Me too, and apparently many others.
We have all seen the statistics. Less than a third of North American households still have a landline, so the phone dedicated to voice calling is rapidly going the way of the buggy whip. Smart phones, those ubiquitous and perhaps dangerous replacements for both phone and computer, continue to grow. Today, there are 1.4 phone lines for every man, woman, and child in North America, the vast majority of them cell-based.
And on smart phones, the shift from “talking” on the phone to text and data based interactions has been stunning. First emails, and then texting and instant messaging, have rapidly overtaken and surpassed voice calling. The latest statistic is that, while voice calling has increased at slightly less than the rate of population increase (even as voice calls became much cheaper and easier), the rate of communication using data has increased at a compound annual growth rate of over 45% per year over the last decade (i.e. forty times what it was ten years ago).
By the way, if you think those figures are extreme, that only means you are my age. People under the age of thirty use data communications even more heavily, to the point where some of them avoid voice calls altogether.
All of this information is fine, but none of it is news.
There is another step, though. Ask yourself how much telephone conversations just to connect with others have dropped. Not calls to order a pizza. Not calls to wait on hold for the cable company. What about just chatting on the phone with a friend?
It is those more personal calls – calls that are truly people making social connections with each other – that have declined the most. For many people, the half hour phone call with a friend to “catch up” has just disappeared.
Let me give you just one surprising statistic. In the U.K., 2017 marked the first year that the total number of cell phone voice call minutes dropped compared to the previous year. The voice call minutes per person had been declining for a couple of years, but now the overall total is declining. In Canada, more than a quarter of all smart phone users now have five or less voice calls per month. Fully 60% of those calls are 90 seconds or less.
Obviously this is in part because of social media, which allows daily, even constant connection with people that are close to you, or even not close to you. We have developed the habit of sharing our lives with people we wouldn’t recognize on the street, just as much as we do with our friends and even family members. It is a different sort of connection, of course. Many say it hurts real relationships, even as it perhaps breathes some life into more tenuous “relationships”.
Most people now prefer to send text messages rather than make a phone call. So often what we want to say to each other is just communication of a piece of information. For some, and particularly for those who are younger (and have lived their whole lives with smart phones), it is easier to send a text. There is no interaction, it takes a few seconds, and the recipient doesn’t get the ability to tie you up for a longer time, or on other matters that you maybe don’t want to deal with right now.
All of this is fine, and we could argue forever on whether the good parts of this shift outweigh the bad, or vice versa. Some would even argue that we interact in person more because our normal “internet-based” connections are not as interactive and personal. I know lots of people who would prefer to meet for a coffee or drink rather than talk on the telephone.
For the last couple of weeks, we haven’t been able to interact with our friends and family in person, and that is likely to continue for at least a month or more. Of course, we still have social media, and email, text, and instant messaging. We have lots of ways to communicate, many more than we ever had years ago.
That is clearly not enough. What “social distancing” is reminding us is that we need the ability to engage with others in real time. It is a human desire, that ability to connect in a manner that allows us to be “together” as we communicate. Texts and emails are back and forth communications. First it is your turn, then my turn. It can be a conversation of sorts, but even so-called instant messaging only allows communication in the sense of a tennis match: separate messages back and forth across the net. It is a less engaged and less immediate form of interaction. (At least in tennis you can see the other player. In messaging, it is even less personal than that.)
As a result, in the currently more isolated situation while we fight a dangerous pandemic, many people are turning back to the telephone. It is not as good as interacting with people in person, but when that avenue is cut off, the voice call (or, for some people, the video call) is the next best thing.
But here’s the thing. For a lot of people, this is a rusty skill.
There are probably three reasons for that.
First, there is a greater level of actual engagement required in a phone call than in messaging. Yes, I know many of us are used to conference call meetings and the like, but that is not in any way the same. In a conference call meeting, you can be as engaged as you like, or just an slightly interested listener. There are always lots of people to carry the conversation. Not so when you are on the phone with a friend. There are only the two of you. Your mind can’t wander. You are spending time with your friend. Nothing else can intrude on your thoughts.
Second, when voice calling was the norm, we all had to have some ability to read conversational signals from tone and timbre. Not able to see a person’s face, or body language, we instead read their voice. Some people were very good at it. Others, not so much. Today, this is often a lost art.
Third, as “chatting” on the phone has become less common, we have adopted a mentality that phone calls must have a purpose. You call someone to discuss “something”. The idea of calling just to connect has faded. What this means is that, today, when we are connecting with people on the phone because we are physically isolated, we are at more of a loss as to how the conversation should unfold. That ability to just let a conversation flow – wherever it may go – is something that we understand in an in person setting, but may feel is less natural in a phone call.
To put that more simply, if you call a friend just because you know you won’t have a chance to hang out over the next month or so, it is easy for them – or even you – to redefine the call as “checking up on them to see that they’re OK”. That’s all very nice, but it isn’t the point, and a check-in is not the same as a real conversation.
Interestingly enough, when I discussed this whole telephoning thing with a woman of similar age to me, she noted that she talks on the phone with friends on a regular basis, and the Covid-19 situation hasn’t really changed that very much. For her, it is not a “rusty skill” at all, and she thought that would be true for many other women she knows.
The men she knows, on the other hand, never talk on the phone with anyone. (She laughed!)
It has been always thus, of course. If you look back in the scientific literature, you will see many studies of the differences in telephone habits between men and women. Numerous studies demonstrate that women spend more time on the phone, and have longer conversations. More to the point, they are significantly more likely to use the telephone for what is called “relationship maintenance” purposes.
Those of a certain age would remember the comedy routine, recycled by many top comedians, contrasting men and women on the telephone. Two men would have a call of thirty seconds to arrange to meet for lunch. Two women would have the same call, to arrange that same lunch, but spend fifteen minutes to do so.
Or, this more recent one-liner from comedian Kevin Burke: “Women will call other women on the phone just to talk. If a man calls me on the phone just to talk, I owe him money.”
But now we’re all stuck in our little physical bubbles for the next while, and suddenly men have only the telephone to connect with other people. For many of us, we have to re-learn how to do that. Or learn for the first time, in some cases.
All of which suggests that, if some enterprising women would like to do a webinar on how to talk to people on the telephone, we men could certainly use the help.
– Jay Shepherd, March 31, 2020