April 08, 2024

The Changing Status of Phone Calls

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

I recently disconnected my landline. I feel the need to explain why I had a landline for so long: when I first moved to my home,  cell reception was unreliable in my location. I also had the same phone number for nearly 20 years, so it seemed like keeping a landline made sense for a while.

In recent years, cell towers were installed on my street and the landline became more of a nuisance, mostly used by robo-callers and scammers, until I set it to only ring if a number from an approved list was calling. When the phone would ring throughout the house, it became jarring, even intrusive. So, when the price doubled for the landline, it was time to cut the cord.

Like many other people, I prefer not to make or take phone calls unless necessary. In a recent conversation with an elderly family member, I was asked if I had “talked” to a series of other family members that week. That week? I explained that most people now communicate through texts or other electronic means, and he didn’t believe me. “How do you know?” he asked, as if minimizing actual phone calls was my own personal peculiarity rather than a long-standing trend. Here’s how I know:

A number of surveys, often conducted by marketers and cell phone providers, suggest this is particularly true for younger people who prefer texting to talking. According to this 2023 British survey:

Phone calls are fast becoming a relic of the past as over a quarter (26%) of Gen Z say they actively shirk speaking to people on the phone.

New research released today has revealed almost a third (32%) of Gen Z will rarely make a phone call with a fifth (20%) finding it weird when they receive one. Of those surveyed, 36% admit they would only make a call to locate their mates on a night out and around one in five (19%) would only make a voice call in an emergency.

A 2018 survey of millennials by a cell trade-in service found that 75 percent of respondents said they ignored calls because they are time consuming, 64 percent wanted to avoid someone “needy” and nearly half were avoiding being asked for favors. Another survey suggests that Gen Z respondents report feeling anxious about talking on the phone. They’re not alone. This 2021 Conversation article explains: 

Thanks to technology, we can often go days, weeks or even months without directly speaking to others on the phone. One study found anxious people prefer texting over phone calls, rating it a superior medium for expressive and intimate contact.

Some people opt for texting because it gives them time to think about the wording of their messages, providing the opportunity to be informal. In some cases, they develop a different personality separate and in contrast to their real-life, more reticent, self.

For me, phone calls can be a real time suck, involving small talk and pleasantries, and in some cases prolonged by people on the other end who want to draw out the conversation to meet their own emotional needs. Work-related calls have dwindled to an only-as-needed basis, and thankfully are now scheduled just like meetings. Our university eliminated landlines a few years ago, and it has been freeing to make calls only when necessary, by app on any device connected to the internet.

Phone calls can also cut into productivity, according to this Harvard Business Review article:

It takes 23 minutes to recover from a distraction at work—and almost nothing is more disruptive than an unplanned call taking you away from the task you intended to accomplish. Also, the minimum default timeslot for a call is usually 30 minutes, while even the most information-laden emails take 5-10 minutes to compose. By scheduling a call, you’re often drawing out and extending a process that can be completed in one-third the time (for instance, setting a meeting agenda may require a couple of emails back and forth, but each email will probably take less than 5 minutes to write—whereas your colleagues may well fill up an entire half-hour call prattling about those same logistical questions).

Back in 2015 I wrote about the changing etiquette for phone calls, and this post seems like it needs updating. For many, including me, a phone call is a very personal interaction, reserved for family members.  Alternatively, it is a pragmatic problem-solving tool for work-related issues that can’t be resolved through other communications. Receiving a call from a stranger is highly unlikely to result in a conversation, because like me, most people won’t answer the phone if the call is from an unknown caller. Even when we do know who is calling, we may be reluctant to pick up.

While nearly all Americans have cell phones—and 90 percent have smartphones—for older people accustomed to taking care of business via phone or connecting with friends and family by talking, this can be an unsettling change. How might we address the trend away from phone calls while helping seniors feel more connected?

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