Perspective: The moment when people stopped talking on the phone

Published December 23 2016
Updated December 23 2016

The phone call is a thing of the past.

Not entirely of the past, of course; phone conversation lives on in roughly the same way that swing dancing lives on, or Latin declension, or manual transmission. You can still find it, but you have to look a lot harder, because it's no longer a way of life.

The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007, a season after the iPhone came out. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people's primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech.

Some were still, of course, making phone calls on their "landlines." But by 2007, landlines were already being displaced rapidly by mobile phones, in part because you couldn't send a text on one. Today, we're mere seconds away from a majority of U.S. households possessing no landline at all, and text messages are five times more frequent on mobile phones than phone calls. You can still call your best friend on the telephone, but he probably won't pick up. Instead he'll text you, or ping you on Facebook.

I have a friend named Joe, whom I don't see often because we live in different cities, and always have. He's not a close friend, but I like him enormously. I used to phone Joe, or Joe would phone me, a couple of times a year. No particular reason — we'd just check up on each other, exchange a bit of gossip, talk about politics or journalism or our families. I saw Joe recently at a party, along with his second wife and their young son, and was caught up short when I realized that I had no idea what their names were. I had no idea because Joe and I had stopped phoning each other sometime around, well, 2007. When I introduced myself to Joe's wife (her name turned out to be Dawn) I noticed that my name was no more familiar to her than hers to me.

Calling somebody on the phone used to be a perfectly ordinary thing to do. You called people you knew well, not so well, or not at all, and never gave it a second thought. But after the Great Texting Shift of 2007, a phone call became a claim of intimacy. Today if I want to phone someone just to chat, I first have to consider whether the call will be viewed as intrusive. My method is to ask myself, "Have I ever seen this person in the nude?" The sighting doesn't have to be (indeed, seldom is) recent. Nor is it necessary that I remember it. I need only deduce that, sometime or other, I must have seen this person naked. That clears phone calls to a wife or girlfriend, to children, to parents, to siblings, to old flames, to former roommates from college, and very few others.

I make exceptions to the naked rule now and then, but always with trepidation, because when a friend you've never seen naked sees your name pop up on his smartphone he's liable to think you lack boundaries. If you aren't on this never-naked person's contacts list, forget about connecting at all. Nobody answers a cellphone that blinks an unfamiliar phone number, and nobody has the patience to listen to voice mail. (I'm sure that the final voice mail that anybody actually heard was recorded sometime around 2009.)

With business calls, prevailing etiquette isn't all that different. If you know somebody pretty well in the business sense (the threshold here being not "have I seen this person naked?" but "have I ever seen this person across a lunch table?") you may phone with some confidence that the party will pick up. If not, you'll have to leave a message and enter a ghastly limbo that requires a formal appointment. To talk on the phone! If you're a journalist like me, appointment phone calls are a dreary ritual in which you're put on speakerphone and a press spokesperson sits in to eliminate the possibility that anything of the slightest interest will be said.

The phone call always was an invasive form of communication, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that as soon as a plausible substitute presented itself we grabbed it. What was the very first phone call, on March 10, 1876, if not an urgent human demand? "Mr. Watson," said Alexander Graham Bell, "come here — I want to see you." That Thomas Watson, situated in the next room, would comply was a given, because Bell was his employer. For the next hundred years, phones continued to boss people around. A loudly ringing telephone demanded its owner's immediate attention because you never knew who it might be. It could be the president! Or news that you'd inherited $1 million from a relative you'd never heard of! Or (God forbid) your teenager wrecked the car and was in the hospital! Octogenarians still tend to respond to a ringing landline with terrific urgency, risking hip fracture as they lunge to answer it.

The telephone's bratty demand for attention is a leitmotif in midcentury American popular culture. Ray Milland's plot to murder Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder makes no sense without the presumption that she'll get out of bed to pick up a ringing telephone at 11 p.m., something nobody I know has done for years. The Telephone Hour number in Bye Bye Birdie is based on the quaint notion that teenage gossip travels at breathtaking speed through fat analog phone cables; today, of course, it travels infinitely faster through silent Instagram postings permeating the very air.

The telephone's rule was absolute until the mid 1980s, when the rising popularity of answering machines and caller ID began to undermine it. Baby boomers wielded these tools against their telephones like a lion tamer's whip. If it was important, the caller could leave a message just as if they weren't there, a deception their World War II generation parents could never countenance. The advent around the same time of call waiting similarly made human agency a deciding factor in whether you were available to talk. Sometime around 2010, my then-teenage daughter was trying to call a friend. Something's wrong, she said. This phone has gone berserk. She handed it to me. I listened, then explained patiently what a busy signal was. She'd never heard one before.

With the rise of mobile telephones around the turn of the 21st century, you and your telephone were never going to be apart, and screening phone calls became a simple matter of survival (literally, if you were driving). Mobile phones were vastly inferior to landlines (and remain so), with iffy coverage and lousy reception. Rare is the lengthy cellphone call that isn't dropped at some point, requiring one party or the other to redial. (Or both, and then both are sent to voice mail, and everyone gives up in exasperation.) The iPhone, introduced in June 2007, made telephone reception slightly worse, but it did everything else so well that you just had to have one. People stopped thinking of it as a phone and started calling it a "device." Within six months the phone call was dead.

Freedom from the telephone call's yoke has yielded many societal benefits. You can go wherever you want (except certain mountainous areas) and stay on the grid — or not — as you desire. You can end a dull phone conversation by saying, "Hello? Hello? I think you're breaking up," even when the reception's crystal clear.

But this new freedom came at the cost of something precious: the human voice. Texting is more stilted and less spontaneous than speech, even for those of us who write for a living. It's performed with greater anxiety about being misunderstood (hence the nervous punctuation with emojis) yet also, paradoxically, it's more controlled, with highs and lows filtered out.

Logically, I ought to cheer the triumph of the written word that this age of texting hath wrought. But the telephone call's demise has impoverished me, separating me from friends with whom I communicate now mostly on social media, which isn't the same. My kids are grown and the house is quiet. A whole day will now pass when I don't hear the sound of my own voice. It would be nice now and then to hear the telephone ring.

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