We are more connected than ever, but we rarely seem to really speak to each other. So, Rebecca Nicholson decided to try. L ike most people I know, my Weekly Screen Report is obscene.
Every Sunday, when the notification pops up to tell me the hours I have wasted, mostly texting, I think about all the things I could have done. Finished Middlemarch.
Started Middlemarch. But as I have my phone in my hand, I scroll through Instagram instead. Messages is my most used app.
I am talking all the time. But I am rarely talking. For the chatterboxes among us, this is a time of upheaval. The long, spontaneous chat on the phone is going the way of the fax. I looked at my own recent call list: three minutes, two minutes, five minutes at a push. What can you say in that time? I know many will welcome this as a kind of freedom. The very idea of talking on the phone invokes horror among those who claim to loathe it. There are thousands of memes explaining the many ways that talking, not texting, is rude, basically criminal. Calling is not time-efficient, ill-suited to the attention economy, where all eyes must be on several screens at once.
My dad recently marvelled at me missing my one on sex chat friend able to text with two thumbs; I marvel at teenagers being able to text while talking to you and not looking at the screen. Once technology gave us the ability to easily screen calls, we ran with it.
But what happens if you are that chatty friend? The dumb phone is making a comeback.
I wondered if it was possible to ride this wave of the digital detox and make a deliberate effort to call instead of text. I wanted to see if it would change my relationships, particularly the ones I had grown lazy about maintaining. The plan was to stay off text and DMs for a solid month. I was fed up of paddling in the shallows. I wanted to swim. I have. It should be easier than ever to talk. There are limitless outlets for publishing our thoughts, endless ways to begin a kind of conversation. We talk with one eye on efficiency, and it strangles what is so good about it — the spontaneity, the lack of ability to control what happens when two people are rambling on to each other.
She spoke to teachers who observed that their students seemed to develop empathetic skills at a slower rate than they would be expected to. Are we losing that joy of being heard? Most offices are quieter places than they have ever been.
The open-plan rooms I have worked in over the last decade or so are filled with people wearing headphones, silently tapping away on Gchat or Slack. Even workplaces that should invite conversation are making it easier to avoid talking at all. If you stay in a budget hotel, you can check yourself in and out.
When it was common enough to be considered a problem, making a phone call on public transport used to be frowned upon. Train carriages are now full of he bowed, illuminated by blue light. Quiet carriages are becoming redundant.
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We are making ourselves quiet. Insomeone set up a family WhatsApp group. Before then, I spoke to my family on the phone all the time. Now, we spend more time in touch with each other than ever before, yet I miss them. The person I still speak to most often, and for longest, is my nan, who is The other day I phoned to see how she missing my one on sex chat friend, and she told me a long story about how she was never supposed to have the name that she has, but there were 23 pubs in the village she was born in, and her father stopped in at most of them on the way to register her birth.
Verbal conversations are unpredictable and unwieldy in a way that those written down are not, because when we type or tap, we are in control, of our side, at least. This ruthless chat efficiency has excised the flab but, I realise, I love the flab.
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I wanted to revive those conversations with everyone. So in my month of no texts, the WhatsApp group would be the first thing to go. I went to delete the app, pressed my finger on the screen, let it wobble — and then I stopped. There was a video of my niece dancing in front of the TV that I wanted to show my partner and I thought, I can just look at the photos and videos, every now and then.
D r Scott Wark is a research associate at Warwick University who studies culture, technology and social media; his PhD thesis was about memes. I called him to see if we are actually moving away from verbal communication. But when we finally managed it, he was more optimistic than I had anticipated.
He does believe that people are less willing to make calls. If I want to talk to my boss, we schedule a time to make a call. If people are becoming more mindful about their phone usage, though, does he think calling might make a comeback?
Wark said that he, too, thinks the worst if he has an unexpected missed call. When I talked to my friends about it, I realised that most people feel the same way. A phone call, out of the blue, is alarming. On the first day of not texting for a month, a friend had some bad news about her health.
I wanted to know how she was. But I thought calling would alarm her, because it has become alarming. So I texted, and we had a text chat, while the telly was on. Calling really would have felt like an imposition. My month of not texting was barely even a day old. I failed completely. I am wary of nostalgia.
Nobody wants to hear another old person chirping that it was better in their day. When I spoke to Dr Wark, he sounded hopeful about the changing nature of communication. We may be more distracted than before, but we are more connected.
It depends, he says, on the person, and his relationship to them. He calls his mum, he texts his partner. I could not stop texting, but in the search for a better connection, I did start to call more. I started to phone to cancel plans, and it proved a good litmus test: having to talk about it made me consider whether I genuinely wanted to cancel, or whether I was just being idle.
We talked for half an hour.
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On the Failed Day of No Texts, it became horribly apparent just how compelled I was to share every little detail of what was happening to me. I dropped a plate, and went to tell someone about it, anyone. But to realise I might have to call someone to tell them I was clumsy, which they already knew, made it seem totally redundant.
I felt free, somehow, from the obligation to transmit the boring bits of my life as rolling news. By texting less and calling more, I was reminded that people are almost always nicer on the phone than on text. Arguments are resolved more quickly. It is much more difficult to be rude, and we could all use a bit of that. Talking on the phone scares people. Technology has created a new rigidity when it comes to conversation. Calling is usually planned, scheduled, and to call is to really mean it.
I still text, all the time. I feel inordinately proud of myself if my screen time drops below three hours a day.
But I am calling more, too. I am back in the habit, and for me, it is infinitely more satisfying to have a conversation that is two-sided and flexible and unpredictable. The lost art of having a chat: what happened when I stopped texting and started talking.