Like most people I know, my Weekly Screen Report is obscene. Every Sunday, when the notification pops up to tell me the hours I have wasted, mostly texting, I think about all the things I could have done. Finished Middlemarch. Started Middlemarch. But as I have my phone in my hand, I scroll through Instagram instead. I send an article or a joke to a friend, a picture of the dog to the family WhatsApp, catch up on someone else’s night out. Recently, I clocked up – and I’m ashamed as I write this – six hours and 29 minutes of phone usage in a single day. I have had days where I’ve barely been awake that long. Messages is my most used app. I am talking all the time.
But I am rarely talking. For the chatterboxes among us, this is a time of upheaval. The long, spontaneous chat on the phone is going the way of the fax. The percentage of households with a landline that’s used to make calls is declining every year, from 83% in 2016 to 73% in 2019; the number of calls made on house phones plummeted by 17% in 2018 alone. We still use our mobiles to talk – in 2018, Ofcom surveyed mobile users for three months and found only 6% of them never made a single call – but we are not talking in any great depth. The same study found that over 80% of calls were shorter than five minutes, and the majority were under 90 seconds. I looked at my own recent call list: three minutes, two minutes, five minutes at a push. What can you say in that time? You can only make the point you’ve called to make.
I know many will welcome this as a kind of freedom. The very idea of talking on the phone invokes horror among those who claim to loathe it. There are thousands of memes explaining the many ways that talking, not texting, is rude, basically criminal. Calling is not time-efficient, ill-suited to the attention economy, where all eyes must be on several screens at once. You can send messages when you’re doing something else – watching The Irishman, or having a bath, or even talking to another person in real life. My dad recently marvelled at me being able to text with two thumbs; I marvel at teenagers being able to text while talking to you and not looking at the screen. Once technology gave us the ability to easily screen calls, we ran with it. We can ignore the relative who phones with a list of recent hometown tragedies, the work call we don’t feel like taking, our chattiest of friends who might not let us go for an hour. But what happens if you are that chatty friend?
Smart phones are smart enough to tell you that you’re using them too much. The dumb phone is making a comeback. I wondered if it was possible to ride this wave of the digital detox and make a deliberate effort to call instead of text. I wanted to see if it would change my relationships, particularly the ones I had grown lazy about maintaining. The plan was to stay off text and DMs for a solid month. I was fed up of paddling in the shallows. I wanted to swim. If I needed to speak to someone, I’d have to call them.
‘If the phone rings after 7pm, one of us has to say, “Who’s dead now?”’ Illustration: Leon Edler/The Observer
When the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel died in January, a piece she wrote in 2013, about her “one-night stand of a life”, began to circulate again, and it contained one paragraph that hit me particularly hard. “Look at how we live,” she wrote. “We communicate in text messages and emails; even those of us old enough to have lived in a world where landline was not a word because it’s all there was have fallen into this lazy substitute for human contact. I have.”
Who hasn’t? It should be easier than ever to talk. There are limitless outlets for publishing our thoughts, endless ways to begin a kind of conversation. Voice memos are popular, particularly among young people, but they’re a halfway house, still one-sided. We talk with one eye on efficiency, and it strangles what is so good about it – the spontaneity, the lack of ability to control what happens when two people are rambling on to each other.
The psychologist Sherry Turkle has been studying the impact of computers on human psychology since the early 1980s, and in 2015 she published Reclaiming Conversation, in which she referred to “the edited life” that we live now. She spoke to teachers who observed that their students seemed to develop empathetic skills at a slower rate than they would be expected to. “Face-to-face conversation is the most human – and humanising – thing we do,” she wrote. “Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”
Are we losing that joy of being heard? Most offices are quieter places than they have ever been. The open-plan rooms I have worked in over the last decade or so are filled with people wearing headphones, silently tapping away on Gchat or Slack. Even workplaces that should invite conversation are making it easier to avoid talking at all. If you stay in a budget hotel, you can check yourself in and out. If you scan your onions on the supermarket’s self- service checkout, you don’t need to chat about what you’re planning to do with them. When it was common enough to be considered a problem, making a phone call on public transport used to be frowned upon. In the early 00s, Dom Joly built a TV career out of shouting “Hello!” into an oversized mobile in public places. Train carriages are now full of heads bowed, illuminated by blue light. A few years ago the Daily Mash ran a much-shared satirical news story: “A northern man has left a trail of terror across London by attempting to interact socially with everyone he meets.” And even in the north, screens have begun to dominate. Quiet carriages are becoming redundant. We are making ourselves quiet.
In 2014, someone set up a family WhatsApp group. Before then, I spoke to my family on the phone all the time. Now, we spend more time in touch with each other than ever before, yet I miss them. It’s a noticeboard, more than a conversation. The person I still speak to most often, and for longest, is my nan, who is 83. She has a mobile, but doesn’t text. The other day I phoned to see how she was, and she told me a long story about how she was never supposed to have the name that she has, but there were 23 pubs in the village she was born in, and her father stopped in at most of them on the way to register her birth. By the time he got to the clerk, he’d forgotten what he’d been told to call her, so he named her after the clerk instead.
Verbal conversations are unpredictable and unwieldy in a way that those written down are not, because when we type or tap, we are in control, of our side, at least. This ruthless chat efficiency has excised the flab but, I realise, I love the flab. It’s where the excitement happens. I wanted to revive those conversations with everyone. So in my month of no texts, the WhatsApp group would be the first thing to go. I went to delete the app, pressed my finger on the screen, let it wobble – and then I stopped. There was a video of my niece dancing in front of the TV that I wanted to show my partner and I thought, I can just look at the photos and videos, every now and then. Can’t I?
Dr Scott Wark is a research associate at Warwick University who studies culture, technology and social media; his PhD thesis was about memes. I called him to see if we are actually moving away from verbal communication. He was in Chile for work, and I couldn’t get through until I emailed to check he was there. But when we finally managed it, he was more optimistic than I had anticipated.
He does believe that people are less willing to make calls. “It feels like more of an imposition. If I want to talk to my boss, we schedule a time to make a call. She doesn’t just call.” He points out that social media gives us far more control over a chat. “Even though there’s an idea that everyone’s addicted to social media and constantly checking updates, you can ignore a notification of a message. If I’m chatting to a friend in Australia, and I stop responding to her, I’ve probably just gone to sleep and I’ll pick it up the next day. It’s a continuous conversation that doesn’t interrupt anything and is parallel to whatever else we’re both doing.”
Wark disputes the idea that we are becoming more disconnected; he says it’s important to make a distinction between disconnection and distraction. If people are becoming more mindful about their phone usage, though, does he think calling might make a comeback?
Texting trims the flab of chatting. But I love that flab
“What people are responding to, with the idea of a ‘digital detox’, is this overload of distractions. That is a huge problem, because there are all these demands on our cognitive capacity and that’s overwhelming, and exhausting. We’re spread thin.”
It’s good to know we’re all at it. There is a running joke in my house that if the phone rings after 7pm, without a text to warn that a call is coming, one of us has to say, “Who’s dead now?” It’s not ha-ha funny, but it speaks volumes about what the once humble phone call has come to mean. I thought it was just us, that we’d developed gallows humour after a year of the kind of calls that drain the blood from the body, that in saying the worst out loud, it somehow would ward off more bad news.
Wark said that he, too, thinks the worst if he has an unexpected missed call. When I talked to my friends about it, I realised that most people feel the same way. A phone call, out of the blue, is alarming. It’s a harbinger of doom, its ringtone a tiny scythe. The first thing I say when I answer the phone is usually, “What’s wrong?”
On the first day of not texting for a month, a friend had some bad news about her health. I wanted to know how she was. But I thought calling would alarm her, because it has become alarming. So I texted, and we had a text chat, while the telly was on. Calling really would have felt like an imposition. I thought I’d call my girlfriend to see what she fancied for dinner, but she was on the tube, and the missed call made her worried that something had happened, so we ended up texting about that, too. My month of not texting was barely even a day old. I failed completely.
I am wary of nostalgia. Nobody wants to hear another old person chirping that it was better in their day. When I spoke to Dr Wark, he sounded hopeful about the changing nature of communication. “I’m 31, and I’ve been chatting to people online since I was nine. Talking to people on text is totally naturalised,” he says. “Younger people are more willing to FaceTime one another now, and be watching TV, without really saying anything, just hanging out. There’s a different kind of presence involved.” There’s an argument that all this texting facilitates people meeting up in real life anyway, he says, and research to back that up. We may be more distracted than before, but we are more connected. I ask Wark if he’s a texter or a caller himself. It depends, he says, on the person, and his relationship to them. He calls his mum, he texts his partner. “But personally, I would prefer to meet my friends and just talk to them in a pub.”
I could not stop texting, but in the search for a better connection, I did start to call more. I started to phone to cancel plans, and it proved a good litmus test: having to talk about it made me consider whether I genuinely wanted to cancel, or whether I was just being idle. I phoned a friend to say that, honestly, I couldn’t be bothered to travel for 45 minutes to see a film I wasn’t interested in and he said that, honestly, neither could he. We talked for half an hour. My girlfriend is often away for work and it’s become clear that talking on the phone once every couple of days is more substantial and infinitely nicer than constant texting about humdrum stuff.
On the Failed Day of No Texts, it became horribly apparent just how compelled I was to share every little detail of what was happening to me. I dropped a plate, and went to tell someone about it, anyone. But to realise I might have to call someone to tell them I was clumsy, which they already knew, made it seem totally redundant. I felt free, somehow, from the obligation to transmit the boring bits of my life as rolling news. By texting less and calling more, I was reminded that people are almost always nicer on the phone than on text. Face to face, they’re even nicer than that. Arguments are resolved more quickly. It is much more difficult to be rude, and we could all use a bit of that.
Talking on the phone scares people. Technology has created a new rigidity when it comes to conversation. Calling is usually planned, scheduled, and to call is to really mean it. I still text, all the time. I feel inordinately proud of myself if my screen time drops below three hours a day. But I am calling more, too. I am back in the habit, and for me, it is infinitely more satisfying to have a conversation that is two-sided and flexible and unpredictable. I just send a text to say I’m going to call first.