Caeli Wolfson Widger guilt trips about her recent experience of not picking up on a call from her cousin, even though Widger was not pressed for time and could have chatted:
Why the lie? I had time to talk. I had the privacy and quietude I rarely have at my home full of little children and happy chaos. Some of my best conversations of all time have been with Stacey. But my reflex was to avoid her call. These days, I hardly ever pick up.
Most of my daily phone-based exchanges are conducted via text and messaging on social-media platforms. With those, I’m rapid-fire on the turnaround. Every ping signaling a text or swoosh alerting me to a Twitter direct message feels like a tiny gift in waiting. The trill of an unexpected incoming call, on the other hand, feels like a potential demand on my time and attention.
She discovered a week later that her cousin had been very distraught: her cousin in fact asked her to delete the voicemail without listening to it, a recommendation that Widger ignored. Nonetheless, her first comment — ‘Why the lie?’ — makes the assumption that we are lying to others when we don’t answer the phone.
Widger’s may be the old school attitude, but it’s simply wrong: there should be no obligation — or assumption — that we will answer the phone when it rings if we are able to.
Telephone calls are intrusive: they require foreground attention, so it’s difficult to continue doing whatever it is you are up to — writing, reading, cooking dinner, even driving a car — while talking on the phone.
The new doctrine is that a phone call, like any other activity that requires foreground attention, needs to be scheduled. This allows both participants to pick a time appropriate for the call, with few distractions, and in a setting that’s sensible: not shopping at the mall, while having sex, or sitting a dentist waiting room.
So: it’s not a lie to not pick up. In fact, I wish my phone wouldn’t ring unless I have a call from that number scheduled in my calendar, or I have clicked on the ‘accept call’ switch following a text request.
I recently wrote a longish post at GigaOM called It isn’t how much time you have, but how you protect it where I argued that we have to commit to only doing what’s important:
Don’t do anything unimportant, no matter how urgent it seems, unless you do it for love.
So, perhaps in Widger’s case, she should have taken her cousin’s call, for love. But I would still expect a text message first, these days. That’s the postnormal etiquette, after all.
Clive Thompson, Clive Thompson on the Death of the Phone Call
According to Nielsen, the average number of mobile phone calls we make is dropping every year, after hitting a peak in 2007. And our calls are getting shorter: In 2005 they averaged three minutes in length; now they’re almost half that.
We’re moving, in other words, toward a fascinating cultural transition: the death of the telephone call. This shift is particularly stark among the young. Some college students I know go days without talking into their smartphones at all. I was recently hanging out with a twentysomething entrepreneur who fumbled around for 30 seconds trying to find the option that actually let him dial someone.
This generation doesn’t make phone calls, because everyone is in constant, lightweight contact in so many other ways: texting, chatting, and social-network messaging. And we don’t just have more options than we used to. We have better ones: These new forms of communication have exposed the fact that the voice call is badly designed. It deserves to die.
I honestly dislike ‘phone calls’ — random, out of the blue interruptions by someone who has my phone number. On the other hand, I have many long phone conversations every week, which are increasingly on Skype or soon, I bet, on my iPhone (or iPad, once it is rigged with cameras), involving video communication. These are situations where I will put aside other work, and solely focus on the topic of the call. Note however that these sessions often involve multiple people, and generally include real-time chat among the parties. These are more like online meetings.
But yes, I find that I use other communication preferentially, like texting and Twitter — where I don’t have to dedicate my foreground attention. I have set up my voice mail to redirect to Google Voice, so I can get a transcript of the voice mail, after which I treat it like a text message.
And I find it odd when I realize that someone I am working with is a ‘phone person’ — someone whose primary mode of interaction is via phone calls. It seems old-fashioned, like smoking a pipe, or wearing a cravat.
Thompson suggests that adding presence to handsets would help, since this would mean that we’d know if someone was available for a call. I think that doesn’t work, really. It just creates another layer of etiquette, where people would want to indicate they are around for emergencies, but not for casual chat, and they would have to update their presence everytime they were on a call or went to a meeting. Better to text and ask if someone if free to take a call, I think, if only because it can be ignored or deferred until an appropriate moment.