Look at Life: Phone Calls

26th October 2018

Is the Phone Call's Number Up?

By Lisa Botwright

Like Scottish wildcats, toast racks, handkerchiefs and Christmas cards, the landline is fast becoming an endangered species. If you’re under 30 years old, you’re almost certain to own a mobile (90%) but there’s only a 20% chance you’ll own a landline too. I still have one at home, but only ever receive calls on it from the two grandparents and an irritating amount of cold callers. When it does ring, its shrill sound seems vaguely intrusive and anachronistic, and while I’m mostly happy to speak to the grandparents, I’m far less tolerant of the cold callers, and bristle mildly at not being able to know the difference before I answer, so reliant am I now on caller ID. The teenagers, meanwhile, either ignore it completely (‘answer the phone,’ I yell; ‘what phone?’) or eye the antique device with mistrust: something utterly alien to their way of communicating…

…For not only the phone but also the phonecall’s number is up. Of 2,000 smartphone users recently asked to rank how they used their device, making calls came a distinctly lowly 11th place. Top three were texts, emails and Facebook. Andrew Cartledge, of mobiles.co.uk, said: “There are so many apps and features on the latest releases that you don’t really need to leave the house with anything else – your handset can be your satnav, your watch, your camera, your wallet and your tv. With all these useful extras, it is no surprise that actual calls are proving less popular.”

I was watching tv (a real tv, as opposed to a mobile, iPad, or any of the other myriad of ways we can consume tv now) with my 16-year-old daughter recently, when her phone rang. She regarded her handset warily, not recognising the number, but decided to take the call. There proceeded an amusingly stilted and awkward conversation brought swiftly to a close by my offspring, and followed with outrage and bewilderment… A boy she’d met through mutual friends had tracked down her number, and taken the brave step of reaching out for a chat. “He called me!” she exclaimed. “Why did he do that? It’s just weird. Everyone knows you ask for someone’s Snapchat ID first.” What was seen as peak chivalry in the 80s (oh, how exciting it was for teenage-me to get a phone call from a boy) is now reduced to bad manners at best, and inappropriate encroachment at worst.

I believe that the younger generation have carved out a means of navigating the overwhelming proliferation of modes of communication in a way that makes them feel more in control. They choose what to post, what to message and what to share, at a time and place that suits them, which they find comforting; and the new etiquette is to pass this courtesy on to their peers. For good or for bad, they take refuge in crafting their own online reality, so an unexpected phone call – something that’s beyond their control – is highly disconcerting.

But I find I’ve taken this ethos on board too, unconsciously, and so have many of my friends. I mostly communicate through text or WhatsApp, even with close mates and family, and if there’s something I need to say in a phone call, I’ll message ahead to ask when’s a good time to ring. If someone phones out of the blue, I’ll probably pick up the handset with a concerned ‘Is everything okay?’.

It’s not just social media that’s caused this shift in the way we communicate; smartphone technology came along at the right time to feed into the ‘busy’ zeitgeist. (Highly ironic, since it’s also served to blur our working hours, making us arguably busier than ever.) At the time of the noughties’ transition from chat to text, I had two young children and a demanding job, and I still remember the relief I felt, when, after a hard day, my shiny new smartphone meant I could still make plans and communicate with friends, without having to summon an upbeat, chatty self. Years later, I still feel this way.

Is it a good thing? Of course not, if it means texts and apps are replacing real human interaction. We’re social animals, and words on a screen can’t begin to make up for the joy of time and talk with loved ones. However, I find there are also ways that smartphones facilitate friendship. Facebook has meant I’ve kept in touch with past colleagues and wider family in a way that would never have been possible to such an extent without it, and I’ll often fire off a quick message to a friend about something silly or thoughtful, when a phone call would have been overkill.

Most importantly, I try to make real, actual dates as much as life allows, and adore a good face-to-face catch-up over a coffee or a glass of wine – arranged via text or WhatsApp, naturally, and in full tacit agreement that neither of us will phone for a chat beforehand, unless it’s urgent… especially on the landline.

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