Saturday 21 October 2017

Katie Byrne: No, you hang up...

Is the decline of the telephone call really just a matter of convenience?

Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne

Katy Byrne

A friend in his late 40s was recently berated by his teenage daughter for having the audacity to call her without any prior warning.

"It's rude, dad," she told him. "You have to text the person first to find out if they're busy." She went on to tell him that all phone calls should be preceded by a cautionary text.

Apparently those of her generation don't hyperventilate when the ominous "Are you free to talk?" text flashes on their screen.

To a younger generation, those words are merely the good-mannered prelude to a telephone conversation. To an older generation, those words are a clear indication that someone has died or, at the very least, caught an STI...

Still, you might have noticed that many people don't answer their phones these days. Incoming calls are becoming an inconvenience just as voicemail is becoming an anachronism.

Studies bear this out. Today, our smartphones are more likely to be in our hands than pressed to our ears.

The stats are telling us that telephone culture is in decline, and sociological explanations abound.

Maybe it's to do with the busyness trap and an increasingly insular society. Or maybe it's to do with the emergence of mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp and the curious sense of self-satisfaction that comes from using the thumbs-up emoji.

One wonders if the unannounced phone call will soon be like the unannounced house call. I made one of these spur-of-the-moment house visits to some old friends recently and I won't be doing it again in a hurry.

For some reason, I felt compelled to point out that I wasn't under the influence when I announced my arrival over the intercom. "Nobody's dead!" I added cheerfully. The electronic gates eventually peeled apart to reveal a couple in a state of high terror and partial undress...

It should be noted that the death of the phone call is welcomed by those that could never get to grips with the back and forth of a non-face-to-face conversation.

For these types, a phone call is simply an agonisingly long wait for a conversation to reach its natural conclusion, just as leaving a voicemail is a form of excruciating self-analysis.

Reluctant telephone talkers always seem to be going under a tunnel ("can I call you back?") or just heading into a meeting. My grandmother tells me to "watch my credits" - even when she's called me.

No doubt they would agree with the new generation - 'millennials', to use the correct term - who argue that the unannounced phone call is intrusive.

However, millennials have obviously never been at the receiving end of a 5am phone call from a friend who insists on putting you on the phone to everyone in the chipper queue. Likewise, they'll never know what it is to order a taxi without an app or make a reverse charges call from a bean an tí's kitchen.

Would they believe us if we told them that some people used to answer their landlines by reciting their phone number with a pitch-perfect rising inflection, or that some housewives were tormented by a rather quaint sexual predator known as a Heavy Breather?

At the risk of sounding like I had to walk to school in my bare feet - and order pizza using my voice! - millennials don't know what they have sacrificed in the name of convenience. The forward march of technology forgets that there is magic in seeing the whites of the eyes, feeling the touch of a hand and hearing the cadence of a voice. One hundred heart-shaped emojis can't compete.

We know this intuitively. It's proven too. The sound of a familiar human voice raises levels of the 'cuddle hormone' oxytocin and reduces levels of the 'stress hormone' cortisol. We all have loved ones who can detect vulnerability in the timbre of our voice, even when we're doing our very best to hide it. The voice betrays our innermost feelings.

Talking on the telephone is a lesson in nuance, too. Our sense of hearing becomes heightened and we learn to pick up on subtle social cues that help us navigate the ebb and flow of a conversation.

Anecdotally speaking, I've heard of companies having to teach millennials how to have a pleasing phone manner as they are much too abrupt when they pick up the receiver. We probably all have a more abrupt phone manner these days, though. We're used to the high-velocity repartee of instant messaging and the luxury of communication with a delete option.

But are we really too busy to make a call? Or is busy the word we use when our energy is low and we are anything but 100pc?

Many of us are now in the habit of avoiding phone calls - but we should ask ourselves if we are avoiding this form of communication during the times when we need it the most.

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