Phone Thoughts in 2021
Not too long ago, I mean, like, in the last couple of weeks, a professional colleague emailed me to tell me some good news and to ask me about something related to our shared venture. I emailed back that he should call me because what I had to say was easier communicated through talking than text. Then three days later I emailed again asking why he hadn’t called. He called then and apologizing saying, basically, that he assumed the comment about calling was sarcastic.
This illustrates, I think, the state of making phone calls in 2021.
For the record, I was not being sarcastic – I did actually want to speak to this fellow. But I couldn’t entirely blame him for having that thought. At this point in turning of the world, voice communication, i.e., using one’s phone as a phone, is an increasingly rare thing. Speaking personally, more than 90% of my business communication is through email. Speaking on the phone is reserved for rare occasions that are on opposite sides of the communication spectrum: Either short congratulations on good news, short commiserations on not-great news, or long strategy calls that are essentially not-in-person business meetings. Everything else is email.
Personal contact is perhaps even more lopsided; there are friends I’m in almost-daily contact with through text, email and both public and private social media who I don’t think I’ve had a phone call with in years. Some of them I don’t think I’ve ever had a phone call with at all. I’m happy to talk to friends on the phone, I should note; my phone conversational skills have not so atrophied that I’m incapable of blathering away about nothing for twenty minutes or a half hour. But I’m also not sitting in my house wondering why no one calls anymore. I know why they don’t call — because they’ve already shared the news about what’s going in their life on social media, and I’ve probably already responded by hitting the “like” button at the very least. We’re already all caught up.
And this is fine. The phone had its nearly-century-long primacy as a communication medium because there was nothing better, faster; its primary competition was letter-writing and postcards. Now the primary competition is social media, which is generally better for saying things to a bunch of people all at once; text, generally better for saying something to a particular person; and email, which does both. Even the (ugh) conference call has been supplanted by the (ugh) Zoom call. The phone call is now specialty communication: For when, for whatever reason, saying something with your voice is actually the best way to do it.
Which as it turns out is rarely.
And which is why I don’t, on a daily basis, miss the phone call at all. I don’t miss the disruption of my workflow or personal time, or having it be the primary thing I focused on when it was an unwanted call and thus I didn’t want it to be, or not knowing who was calling or why. I don’t miss being annoyed with spam callers (my Pixel phone automatically screens out the majority of these now so I never see them at all), and I don’t miss the political or other robocallers. I don’t miss trying to navigate through voicemail to listen to messages. I love talking on the phone with people I like to talk to, and usually these days we do that by appointment, which is pretty great as well. I can and do take spontaneous calls, but the “always take that call” list is very short. If you have to wonder, you’re probably not on it.
(And I do vastly prefer phone calls to video calls. The selfie camera on my phone makes my face look like a small moon with a vast nose mountain on it, and it does the same with everyone else. This is not a great look for any of us. The video call is fine for when family or friends are having a get-together you can’t be at and you want to be able to wave at the whole group at once, or, again, some other very specialized use case. But otherwise, no, thank you. It’s possible this opinion is affected by a year of quarantine and forced Zoom conviviality; I’m the first to admit to Zoom burnout. But I think this would be the case for me in any year. If you must call, I prefer it be audio, please.)
Miscommunications about when to call aside, I do think the communication situation in 2021 is vastly preferable to what it was in, say, 1991 or even 2001. For me, Whatever and Twitter are for general public communication; my private Facebook account is for the wide spread of friends and family; email, text and private messaging are for specific people. For specific slices of folks, there’s Discord and Slack when I want that. And finally, when it’s needed, and only when it’s needed, there’s the phone.
It works! I like it! I think it’s better. You are free to disagree, obviously. Just don’t call me to do so.