Leaving the age of phone calls

By Natalie Choy

GRAPHIC: DIANE LIM

A few weeks ago, I caught up with a close friend over the phone — a communication medium that I have not been using since my early teens.

While I relished in the spontaneity of our hour-long conversation and the warmth of the human voice that no amount of emojis could replicate, it also made me realise how unfamiliar I was with casual conversations on the phone.

Back in lower secondary school when smartphones were still a distant dream, calling a friend to chat was a normal thing to do.

The home phone served its sole purpose well for me — I spent my weekends hogging the family landline for hours, at times even hosting group calls.

Phone calls with my classmates were always thrilling, fraught with campus gossip and the latest celebrity news. I fondly remember gushing over our history teacher in a three-way group call. In our defence, he was the Asian doppelganger of Zac Efron.

But all that went away with the birth of smartphones and the concomitant rise of instant messaging services. Over the years, phone calls became displaced by new forms of communication. Suddenly there were ways to communicate without having to talk, and my generation readily capitalised on these new-found alternatives.

A 2015 survey by mobile research agency RealityMine found millennials texting three times more often than calling. Phone calls have been playing second fiddle to texting since 2007, the same year that the first iPhone was launched. Whatsapp emerged as one of the top messaging apps three years later; 2011 saw the birth of Snapchat and the Facebook Messenger app.

It is not entirely shocking that the advent of smartphones has radically altered the nature of my social interactions. With a slew of communication tools at my fingertips, it is only natural for me to gravitate towards the easiest and least intrusive form of communication: texting.

As an introvert terrible at making small talk, phone calls can be a form of social pressure to me. Its spontaneous nature does not give me time to compose my thoughts and choose my words cautiously, which I find important when speaking to acquaintances.

Instant messaging platforms such as Telegram and Instagram Direct give me the luxury of time to craft every exchange, while having the capacity to be just as instantaneous and efficient as phone calls.

Another downside of phone calls is its interruptive nature. When ambushed by the ringing tone of an incoming call, more often than not, I am obligated to immediately respond to it. This can be challenging, especially when a call is not anticipated.

On the flipside, written forms of communication allow me to read messages and reply at my own convenience should I be occupied at the moment, a much more courteous alternative to hitting the decline button. It helps that WhatsApp’s blue-tick-of-doom feature can be disabled.

But as instant messaging becomes second nature to a generation that has grown used to iPhones, this habit of texting may compromise the quality of our interactions.

Human laughter is flatly replaced with “LOL”, whose sincerity is always questionable. For the most part, replying to a friend’s Instagram stories and tagging each other in memes on Facebook have become substitutes for actual interaction.

According to a research study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, over 90 per cent of communication is based on non-verbal cues such as body language and tone of voice that written communication has denied us of.

Additionally, a study by Cornell University in 2013 reflected that despite our ability to connect with a vast number of people via the Internet, a person can only maintain genuine connections with 100 people at most.

This had me question the legitimacy of friendships today: are we really as close as we think we are? Are these new forms of communication, albeit highly efficient and convenient, substantial enough?

With the exception of emergency calls, my phone hardly rings now. The McDelivery man ranks high on my call history list. My home phone has been broken for a good five years, and it will remain broken indefinitely because landlines are almost as obsolete as pagers.

While I do miss the marathon phone calls from my adolescence, chatting on the phone is no longer viable today, simply because this method of communication has long passed its prime for my generation.

The occasional face-to-face gatherings are what sustain my friendships, heavily supplemented by interactions on Instagram and Facebook.

That said, phone calls are not entirely extinct in my life. Because I live on campus, I still get calls from my parents who check in with me routinely. Sometimes, my friends call when text messages fail to fully encapsulate the extent of their excitement or heartbreak. The McDelivery man will retain his spot in my call history.

Phone calls still live on, but in the same way that taxis live on in an era of Uber and Grab. They will no longer play as critical a role in modern day social relationships.