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A collage of retro phonesiStock / BBC Three

It's good to talk: Why the phone call needs to make a comeback

Here’s what happened when I stopped texting for a week and picked up the phone instead

Natalie Ktena

Recently, my friend called me. Yep, that’s right – no text, no Insta DM or a WhatsApp voice note. An actual, real-life phone call, to check in and see how I was doing.

I was shocked. 

If you’re like me, you probably haven’t had a voice call since approximately 2007, unless it’s your mum or dad ringing or a PPI nuisance call.

I used to spend so many hours chatting to my friends, my mum would have to prise my fingers away from the phone. And now? My ringer is permanently on silent, an incoming call fills me with a mix of dread and suspicion and, I’ll be honest, I have on occasion let it ring out (come on admit it - it's not just me).

I know I’m not alone in my distaste for phone calls – there are countless memes dedicated to hating them. And while we used to think nothing of using our mobile phones to, you know, actually make calls, we are now doing that less. In fact, Ofcom reported that in 2017 mobile voice calls dropped for the first time ever in the UK, with the total volume of calls made decreasing by 1.7%. 

For Simone Bose, a Counsellor at Relate, the reason we are less inclined to make - or answer - phone calls is partially down to the impact technology has had on our habits: “We’re getting more used to communicating by text and we feel that if someone’s calling us, it must be important enough for a phone call and therefore, it’s something bad." 

People feel more vulnerable when they talk on the phone, they start thinking, how am I going to come across? Am I going to say something wrong?

Simone Bose, counsellor

Not only does that put us off answering but, she explains, “it makes us feel quite anxious”.

“People feel more vulnerable when they talk on the phone,” she says. “They start thinking, how am I going to come across? Am I going to say something wrong?”

While the voice call is in decline, we’re actually using our phones more than ever, with 18-24 year-olds using theirs for an average of three hours and 14 minutes per day.

A woman screaming next to a phoneiStock / BBC Three

But while we may be the so-called ‘connected generation’, we are also a generation that has become increasingly lonely – and now it's suggested there might be a correlation. 

Simone says if you’re primarily communicating by text, it can be a barrier to feeling close to your friends.

I can relate – when I answered my friend's call expecting terrible news, we ended up laughing at how ridiculous I was being. Before I knew it, two hours had passed and we had discussed everything from our careers to what we’d had for dinner.

It’s not rocket science. I know it’s good to talk, so why don't I do it more often? I felt happier and more connected after our chat, something I wouldn’t have felt after a text message.

So I set myself a challenge – no text messaging, WhatsApp, no Insta DMs – not even a Facebook comment - for a full seven days. Instead, every* time someone got in touch with me, I’d have to return their communication with a call. Also, I wasn't allowed to warn anyone about my message detox, because it might make them more inclined than normal to pick up the phone.

*There were two exceptions to the rule – firstly, if I had to communicate for work purposes, emails were permitted (I didn't want to get fired, after all). And two, I was allowed to continue my chats on online dating platforms – but as soon as any numbers were swapped, yep, I had to call them instead too. I really wasn't looking forward to that part...

Day One

I confess – I get a buzz when I look at my phone and see a new text. On this day, I wake to a growing stream of messages from friends and family. Not being able to respond feels strange - in fact, the urge to text is so strong I wonder how I'm going to resist all week - but I definitely get out of bed quicker.

There’s one message from a uni mate telling me about her weekend away with her boyfriend, a group chat with some of my besties who I’m meeting tonight, and some surprising gossip from a group of old workmates. 

On the way to a doctor’s appointment before work, I squeeze in a call to a friend who I’m meeting in the evening and tell her all my plans so she can coordinate. I’m struggling to remember how nights out were planned before we had group chat. I then try to call up my uni friend but she doesn’t pick up, so I leave a voicemail (remember them?) and make a mental note to try again at lunch. 

In the waiting room at the doctor's surgery, I stash my ever-buzzing phone out of sight to help me resist temptation. I end up looking around, making actual eye contact and get chatting to a woman who, I find out, grew up in Cyprus like me. We bond over our similar upbringings, reminiscing about the sun and the food.

Normally, I'd just suggest we link up over Facebook, but instead I find myself asking for her number. I leave the doctor’s feeling optimistic. I didn’t think the experiment would bring a potential new friend into my life. 

Natalie making a call at the officeiStock / BBC Three

Day Two

I wake up early and get on the bus to go to the gym. Normally, this would be prime time to text people back. After all, that’s one of the best things about the electronic message – communicating at a time that suits you.

My family still live in Cyprus and I miss them an awful lot. I’m pretty much always in conversation with them - we exchange about 30 messages a day in the family group chat. I've muted all my notifications but every time I sneak a peek and see a message directed to me I feel a pang of guilt mixed with thumb-based FOMO.

At work, during my lunch break, I call back three people who have been texting me. Every single person rings out. Will nobody actually answer the phone?

Finally, I get a message I can reply to - I've recently started chatting to a guy I quite like on a dating app and, when he texts me mid-afternoon, it's almost a relief to be able to communicate with him from the comfort of my desk. He's quite funny and we seem to have good chemistry, so when he mentions meeting up later in the week, I agree. I'm relieved that he hasn't mentioned exchanging numbers. The idea of calling him sends me straight back to my school days, when boys would call me on the landline and I'd feel sick with embarrassment as my mum would hand over the phone. 

Later, mum calls me sounding worried. My silence had left her slightly confused - as I always answer her messages immediately. I explain the challenge to her and promise to call every day for a catch-up.

I still haven't had a call back from any of my friends. The result? I feel really alone. 

Days Three and Four

At work, I'm determined to stick to my challenge as much as possible. Today, I need to find a contributor for an article I'm working on. So, I draw up a list of five organisations that could help me in my search. Emails would be much quicker to send out and, to make a call I have to hover around in a corridor to find some privacy, but after just two attempts I get a lead. This has happened a lot quicker than expected, and I feel like speaking to an actual human has really helped get across what I'm looking for.

A short while later I receive another message - one of my friends is getting married soon and has messaged me updating me on his plans. Normally, I'd reply instantly, but instead I wait and call him during lunch. I stroll around a local park chatting to him about how he's feeling ahead of his big day. By the time we hang up 10 minutes later, I feel really excited about the wedding. Plus, I've had a decent desk break. He sends me a message after saying how much nicer it was to get a call rather than a text.

The following evening, I call another close friend who I always communicate with by text. He picks up and – his first words? “What’s wrong?” I laugh to myself at this instant assumption. I said I was just calling for a chat. He seemed surprised but in a nice way, and ended up inviting me over for dinner.

My phone calls are leading to more invites – it sounds obvious but it seems by investing more time in actually speaking to people, I'm getting closer to them in the process. 

Natalie in restaurantiStock / Natalie Ktena

Day Five

There’s no doubt in my mind that the greatest challenge of living a textless life is logistics. But on the fifth day of my challenge, I break.

It’s the weekend and I’m meeting friends to do some Christmas shopping. I get to the centre of town first and seize the opportunity to try on a sparkly top I’ve spotted in the window of my favourite shop. I can't really afford it but justify it to myself as my reward for sticking with my challenge. I go to pay, only to realise – much to my horror – my bank card is missing. I rifle through my bag and empty my pockets, but I can’t find it anywhere.

While rushing to the bank to report it stolen, I start getting texts from my friends wanting to know where I am. Feeling stressed and not wanting to waste any time, I cave and send an urgent text to let them know what is happening. Once I start, I find it hard to stop and before I know it, I’ve sent two other messages to a friend and my mum, and 'accidentally' commented on an Instagram post.

When I finally sort the situation and resume my challenge, my friends are out on the noisy high street and keep missing my calls. I end up wandering around alone until I give up and go home. As I'm walking through my door, my phone finally rings. 

A woman talking on a phoneiStock / BBC Three

Day Six

Tonight is my date and as the evening draws closer, I get a message I’d been hoping to avoid.

“It’s probably easier to arrange what we’re doing tonight over WhatsApp,” he tells me.

*Gulp*

My nerves kick in immediately. I have never called an online date before meeting. I’ll have to call him but I'm worried it will make me seem way too keen. 

I dial his number and, when he doesn't pick up at first, I think I've gotten away with it. But a few attempts later, he answers. At first, he sounds confused and I nervously chatter through the awkwardness, trying to explain that 'I don't really do text' - but we end up having a good chat about what we’d been up to that day. He comes across the same way over the phone as he did over text (phew).

On my way to the date, I realise I feel a lot more comfortable about meeting this particular stranger and confident that, even if we didn’t romantically like each other, it will be OK. When we meet, the spark’s not really there, but I don’t regret calling him. In fact, I may even try it on another date. 

A collage of old phonesiStock / BBC Three

Day Seven

I go for a walk with a friend and explain why I was so happy - and surprised - when he answered my call earlier this week. He then shared with me that a few months ago, he too had found himself dreading phone calls - from his family particularly - fearing there would be bad news on the other end.

He’d ended up deciding to actively call them more, and - like me - saw that this not only solved the problem, but it also helped him to feel more connected to them. Knowing he's a 'phoner' too, I resolve to call him instead of text from now on. 

The verdict

This week was definitely frustrating at points  – people’s refusal to answer the phone made communication trickier than usual and I really missed texting for practical reasons.

But when it comes to relationships, from now on, I’m going to try to pick up the phone more. Not only did hearing my friends' and family’s voices help me feel closer to them, but taking the plunge and dialling up my mates gave my social life a boost.

As for the anxiety I used to feel about making a call, practice has made me realise that, more often than not, once people overcome the shock of you calling, they’re happy to spend some time chatting.

I might not be ready to ditch the texts just yet – especially where dating is concerned – but, I’ll be staying less ‘connected’ on social media and as, as a result, feel more connected IRL.