clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When I get a phone call, I assume someone died or is pregnant

But that’s not a bad thing!

Shutterstock

I was going to meet up with her in just a couple of weeks. We had a Google Hangout with the rest of our friend group scheduled for the following Thursday. And yet, around 5:30 on a random weeknight, I looked down to see my college roommate calling out of the blue from five states away.

She must have news. She must be pregnant.

I thought it so fast that I felt guilty about it, as if a baby on the way were the only thing special enough to prompt an unplanned phone chat. But I was right: Early in the conversation — after our greetings and good-to-talk-to-yous — she disclosed her due date coming in the fall.

My friends and I keep updated on each other’s lives mostly by following each other social media and checking in over text. Yet when we need to talk over something significant — a new baby, a new job, a desperate prayer request, a personal victory — we skip the messaging apps and just call and hope the other person can answer.

I flashed to the impromptu calls that preceded this recent one, everyday scenes memorialized by surprise news: the Target aisle where I picked up to hear my childhood friend expecting her first, the lazy Saturday morning interrupted by a sorority sister announcing her baby. Then the harder ones: staring through my living room blinds as a friend shared about her miscarriage, sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floor as my mom told me my granddad passed away. I know these phone conversations are exceptions in today’s text message culture.

I spend far more time typing than talking on my iPhone, as my strained thumbs can attest. And there are people who see this as a problem — a sign that technology is killing our social skills. But I think it’s making our communication better. Text and email puts me in contact with my friends, family, and colleagues more easily and more often. Staying connected with them digitally allows me to make the most of the conversation when we do talk voice to voice.

Just like the rest of our digital lives, we’ve slowly optimized the once-ordinary phone call, creating new expectations for how we keep in touch.

The texting takeover

Every day, more than 80 billion messages are tapped out and sent off over text, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. It’s a rapid-fire medium; digital marketers say 9 in 10 texts are read within three minutes of receiving them.

I’m not alone in my skewed texting-to-calling ratio. “Teens and young adults are prolific texters, and tend to reserve phone calls for important conversations and their closest relationships,” said Nicholas Brody, a communication studies professor at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state. “For many people, phone calls can even be considered impolite because they infringe on our time and personal space — you have to devote your full attention and focus to a call, whereas texting allows you to multitask.”

Just like we’ve gotten used to time-shifting our Netflix binges and DVR queues, texting lets us deal with messages on our own schedules. A poorly timed phone call can feel like an unwelcome interruption or cause for concern (my go-tos are that someone has died or someone is pregnant). “You can’t call anybody anymore,” declared comedian Aziz Ansari in his 2015 standup special. “If you call someone, they be like, ‘What? Are you on fire? Then quit wasting my time! Text me that shit!’”

Our relentless instinct to send a message instead of start a conversation concerns psychologists like Sherry Turkle, best known for her TED talks and books about the drawbacks of a society increasingly glued to their smartphone screens.

Our use of technology, Turkle argues, stunts character building and relationships. Text messages and social media posts do not require the self-reflection or build the sense of empathy we get from prolonged, face-to-face conversation; instead, they let us escape it. Anyone who has ever planned out a message relaying difficult news to skip out on an uncomfortable phone call — or, worse, looked down at our phones to avoid a tense conversation in person — knows she has a point.

“We are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t,” she wrote. “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.”

Connecting over conversation

But I don’t think the intimacy of conversation and the efficiency of messaging are competing factors. Making communication easier — and thereby more regular — actually helps me keep in touch better and deepens my relationships with my friends.

The calls and texts that Turkle sees as interruptions to real-life conversations have become my lifeline, especially with a network of friends scattered across states and time zones. About 60 percent of adults under 35 don’t live in their hometowns, and our iPhones let us see and hear from people more easily than previous technology ever could.

By relying on the strengths of each format — calling and texting — millennials like me have developed a hybrid communication model. We use long strings of message for quick updates and silly chatter, then the occasional phone date or immediate call for the really important stuff. It works out: The generation that uses text, email, and social media the most also places the most cellphone calls, according to polling by Gallup.

“Young adults supplement vocal interactions with textual ones — rather than replacing them out of some instinctive fear of interacting with a human being,” concluded a Nielsen Norman Group report.

When it comes time to catch up, my pals and I text to make plans to talk at length: a free weeknight, a long drive, or the baby’s nap time. During marathon chat sessions with faraway friends, we gab for 20 minutes to an hour.

Weeks of texts and social media updates give us plenty to talk about. Our calls go on for so long that by the time I hang up, my iPhone screen is cloudy with makeup that’s sweated off my cheek, or, if we’re video-chatting, the battery’s down to low power mode. It’s the highlight of my week.

A handful of sorority sisters and I used to get together to check in every Monday night in college. For years, we’ve recreated the gathering online every couple of months. Last time, we logged on from four states to catch up on home remodels, new baby milestones, and summer moves, while dreaming of a group vacation at the beach later this year.

Friendship experts say to keep texting in between scheduled phone calls, which have become the best way to reach people with busy schedules and family demands. Otherwise, “the friendship will drift apart, which can lead to one or both people feeling guilt for not calling more (and) hurt feelings for not feeling like a priority,” said Shasta Nelson, the author of Frientimacy and founder of a site about female friendship.

For special occasions

In the end, there’s a good reason we have embraced text messaging with open emoji arms: It makes life so much easier. I’m not surprised when my friends’ voicemail messages instruct callers to text instead. I regularly call people for work, only to have them request I send along the information in a text or email as well.

But no matter how popular messaging becomes, as long as people keep scheduling phone dates, calling us on our birthdays, and startling us with a ring out of the blue, we’ll know that phone conversations still have their place. The fact that we save our calls for special people and special occasions shows how much they still matter.

When I discussed my phone habits with Debra Fine, a networking consultant who specializes in face-to-face small talk, even she admitted “nobody has the time” for the kind of regular calls she used to have with her girlfriends. “Instantaneous technology has brought us so much. It’s not all negative,” she said.

Any sense of “phone phobia” or concern over inconveniencing the person on the other end shouldn’t keep us from reaching out. Remember, if our call is a burden, Fine said, “they have the option not to answer.”

And then we can send a text.

Kate Shellnutt is a journalist covering faith, women, and pop culture. She works as an editor at Christianity Today magazine. Find her on Twitter @kateshellnutt.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.