Women hand using old telephone on wooden table.

Grumpy Br(u)no: Whatever Happened to Telephone Calls?

Photo credit: Freepik / Illustrative Photo.

Not so long ago, it was commonplace to call people and talk on the telephone. You’d share the latest news. You’d gab about the latest gossip. Or you’d just brag about a sport team’s victory. It was second-nature: pick up the phone, dial some numbers and talk.

Society has changed.

Clearly, general communication has improved. During this quarantine against the spread of the coronavirus, many of us were able to move to home offices relatively easily. We are in constant communication for work, be it with video conferences (i.e., Google Classroom, Zoom, Skype) or instant messaging (i.e., Microsoft Teams, Slack, WhatsApp). These forms of communication are cheap and effective.

However, even though everyone has their mobile phone within a meter at all times, people rarely use it to actually talk to friends and family anymore. Whatever happened to calling someone out of the blue, cradling the phone between our head and shoulder and just talking?

Now, if you do call someone, it is hard not to feel as though you are imposing.

Lately, it has become obvious that people are getting beaten down by the circumstances of life, both on a global level and a personal level. A simple phone call might provide the old-school social connection to make a difference.

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Earlier this year, I got a phone call from someone I wanted to profile. I was sweating on the treadmill, watching a YouTube video on my phone and listening to the audio with earbuds. Suddenly, the Templar Knights documentary turned into flashing graphics and the earbuds started blaring. I, literally, didn’t know what to do. I nearly got swept off of the treadmill.

The phone was probably a journalist’s most important tool. It was the key to contacting people, getting quotes, compiling information and producing a timely story. Now, things are more high-tech, but, frankly, email is too slow when you really need information.

My foot-in-the-door position in journalism was fielding phone calls in the sports department of a city newspaper. Most nights, coaches from dozens of high school sports events would call so that I could record the agate-font scores and statistics and, with a few key questions, put together a short round-up of the big basketball games and swim meets. It sucked when, on quiet nights in the newsroom, you had to interview people with all of the editors listening to your end of the conversation. Yet, that is what grew you up fast.

Later, when I was a publicist in horse racing, I would constantly get phone calls with information for the media in the press box and event information that had to get to the track announcer. Some days were so harried that I would pick up the phone and simply say “Go”.

Over the past couple decades, with the subsequent rise and ubiquity of email and internet communication, the number of phone calls has declined. This was a really strange — and massive — societal change. When I arrived in the Czech Republic in 2006, text messages were already the rage because phone calls cost extra.

Now, I go weeks without getting a call, especially since my wife and I are both working from home all day. My only real calls are from delivery drivers.

In my main job, I constantly communicate with people via an instant-messaging service. For whatever reason — I guess it is some kind of muscle memory — I treat every message like a ringing phone: as soon as my computer beeps, I feel the need to respond. Somehow it feels normal to have my concentration constantly interrupted.

Clearly, there are positives about written communication (e.g., historical record for reference purposes, less anxiety about difficult topics, a slower pace), but there are also negatives (e.g., less human connection, no audible emotional markers, delayed responses).

The saddest part is that, more times than not, the written responses often take much longer to write and explain than what could have been imparted more easily with a quick and efficient phone call.

But, that is not the way of the world any more.

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How many phone calls do you regularly make or receive? Would processes in your professional life be improved by simple phone calls? Do you send messages to set up calls?

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