The tyranny of a ringing phone

We use our smartphones all the time but making or taking calls is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Good riddance, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

The phone rang this morning and, for one brief moment, I honestly didn’t know what it was. For the first time in living memory, I spent a week with my iPhone on divert, while I got on with writing my book. For seven whole days, I neither made nor answered a single phone call, and it was heaven.

This wasn’t about taking time out from my smartphone to reconnect with myself. I didn’t have a road-to-Damascus moment, reject the trappings of modern living, or take up meditating. It was about taking the opportunity to bin the nemesis of my adult life: the telephone. Reader, I loathe it. I absolutely despise phone calls, either made or received. 

And, apparently, I’m not alone. In 2014 and since, text messages have outranked phone calls as the dominant form of communication. Even as far back as 2008, data showed that while call-minute usage has plummeted, texting by millennials has more than doubled (to over 1400 texts per month).

I order our takeaways on Deliveroo, hail cabs via GPS, even pick up medical test results via an automated text from my GP. But call someone for a simple chat? I’d rather do almost anything else

The great irony of living in 2016, of course, is that I’m never off my phone, even though I hate its intended purpose. I book my hairdresser’s appointment on the salon’s own app; the taxi company texts me from outside and auto-collects the fare without my having to root around for my purse, or even speak to the driver. I order our takeaways on Deliveroo, hail cabs via GPS, even pick up medical test results via an automated text from my GP. But call someone for a simple chat? I’d rather do almost anything else. 

On the rare occasion I have no choice but to make a phone call (like Monday morning, to my insurance company), I’m almost instantly enraged by the choice of muzak and wasting precious allowance-exempt call minutes on an 0344 number. And all for a conversation that could easily have been distilled into a simple email to be opened outside of inflexible trading hours. Meanwhile, a personal call that skips straight to voicemail feels like a lottery win for all concerned.

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For this reason, businesses in America are apparently leaning on their employees to pick up the phone to colleagues and clients. It seems we’ve become too exacting about how we’d like to be contacted, and simply ignore anyone who gets it wrong. Millennials are seemingly losing confidence in their ability to talk. But this has certainly never been my problem. It’s not speech itself I don’t like. Chatting to my friends remains a joy, but I’d sooner wait three weeks to tell them something across a pub table, than I would call to discuss while they’re trying to watch 24 Hours In Police Custody. One of my best friends now lives in Australia and, both phone haters, we would literally rather get on a plane for 23 hours than spend 30 minutes on the blower.

All other media allows recipients to choose a convenient time slot. The telephone call is a usually unannounced invasion into my personal space, where I’m expected to just drop everything and broadcast our conversation to anyone within earshot. “What are you up to?” they say, when the answer can only ever be, “Bugger all, now I’ve had to stop to talk to you.” I get bored with shifting my weight from one leg to the other, holding the receiver in a yellow Marigold, mindful that I’m drowning out the kids’ telly with talk of someone’s traumatic episiotomy (I daren’t even get started on those people who put their kids or pissed friends on the phone, mid conversation. Future murderers, all of them). My mind wanders; I miss half a conversation with someone I am genuinely interested in. It makes people who love the phone – like my mother-in-law – feel rejected and ignored.

Conversely, while mail, messenger and text present themselves as real-time conversations, they’re not. We can dwell, rewrite, reframe. Admittedly, written communication can’t always convey tone of voice – especially when thrashed out in haste – but just as bad are those uniquely dreadful jagged telephone conversations, with each party talking over the other, failing to see or anticipate the other’s incoming response. Every pause is heard, no one has time to adequately consider their words (ask me to do you a favour and I’ll probably blurt out YES, then hate and resent you for all eternity). One can neither convey nor read body language screaming “Get me off here”, and so both go round in circles, desperately wanting to hang up but not, for fear of offending the other. We wait and wait for an opportune gap in the conversation to wind things up, only to be sucked repeatedly back into the vortex by those to whom bringing a goodbye back from the brink has become a cruel art form.

Weirdly, the happier parts of my childhood involved spending three hours dangling from a telephone receiver, running up a 300-quid bill to admire Madonna’s new bangle. The phone allowed me to escape my boring domestic life. But my life sucked. Nowadays, I actually crave the cocoon of my home, partner and immediate family, and resent the phone’s insistence on pulling me out of it. I’d hope any friend ringing me of an evening was either in need of urgent help or reporting a death. The fact that my adult friends know this means I’m even less likely to pick up, instantly assuming this can only be a call centre (research shows many of us never answer our landline phones for this very reason). On the rare occasion my close friends call – as my dear friend Sarah did last month – I’ll look forward to picking up voicemail and invariably getting two whole minutes of her bum moving about on her smartphone. It’s the best kind of phone call, because it reminds me I’ve found my people.


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