I may have some grey hairs and eyeliner older than Ariana Grande, but in one respect I am youthful, vital, and absolutely au courant. Along with those decades younger than me, I will do anything to avoid speaking on the phone.
The new Social Media, Social Life study of teens’ online life reveals they increasingly prefer texting to talking face to face. In 2012, the same survey showed 49 per cent preferred real life conversation to texting; that figure is now down to 32 per cent.
Full disclosure: when I say I’ll do anything to avoid the phone, that’s not strictly true. I am never more than a metre away from it. I use it to read emails, order cabs, book restaurants, and send texts, tweets and WhatsApp messages. I use it to listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I’m walking my dogs, to read the paper when I am on the bus, and to do some slow breathe-in-breathe-out to a meditation app if I wake up with my heart racing in the middle of the night. I can count on one hand how often I use it to make and take calls in a week.
While 76 per cent of us own smartphones, 25 per cent of us don’t use them to make calls. The amount of time a typical smartphone user spends on non-voice activities has almost trebled since 2012 to 90 minutes a day. And while we’re all tut-tutting for humanity, I would like to point out that 33 per cent of the kids in the study said they wished their parents would spend less time on their devices, too, so it’s absolutely not just a youth thing (I see you grandma, sharing that cat video on Facebook).
It’s become easier to avoid talking to people, and for those interactions to become just something else to organise, something else to control. Both at work and at home, I am regularly involved in lengthy email chains to arrange suitable times for phone calls. Occasionally, someone will just jump in and call, and it feels like a revolutionary act. Then there are those who gleefully insist on always ringing, rather in the manner of the appalling wretches who proudly announce themselves to be the kind of people who call a spade a spade.
The only people I cheerfully speak to on the phone are my mother and my best friend (I would say my husband, but our calls are always of the table’s-booked-for-eight-bye-click variety and that’s fine by me). I recently read a quiz on how to tell if you’re an introvert and one of the questions was: if, when a phone rings in a room, do you react as though a gun has gone off? Yes, that’s me. Annie Get Your iPhone. But I’ve not always been like this. I was that teen who spent half the evening talking on the phone to the very same girls I’d spent all day with at school, as my dad patrolled the hallway, tapping his wristwatch with irritation.
The Social Media study indicated the reason teens prefer text to talk is that they can control the pace of their interactions, and can also use messaging to mask their shyness or social awkwardness. I think many of us can relate to that. When I dial a number, I can’t shake the feeling that I might be interrupting something far more important. Texting doesn’t induce that kind of anxiety.
I know I am not alone. Mention your phone phobia in almost any social setting, and you will instantly have a coterie of new friends, all relieved that it’s not just them. Recently, I met a high-powered lawyer who has turned off the voicemail facility on her phone and will only take or make calls at certain times of day.
Part of my own anxiety comes from my conviction that phones conspire against me: they break, cut themselves off, and develop strange whirrs and clicks. When my editor called to ask me to write this piece, I was hollering “Hello! Hello! HELLO!” into a void before I realised I had the headphones plugged in but had failed to attach them to my actual ears. And let’s not even talk about the time I attempted to interview a world-famous chef on the phone. After a million emails to ascertain availability and time zones, barely had I pressed record when a brass band struck up outside the window.
So, as we’re friends, how about we come to some kind of agreement? Don’t call me and I won’t call you.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Debora Robertson is a food, gardening and lifestyle writer and editor