In praise of phone calls

There are few things as nourishing as the human voice, especially during self isolation.


pic Marvin Mayer

Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this cycle of emotions recently. This morning, as I woke up after a few days of isolation, dread, and an incipient sore throat—all of which resulted in an unpleasant stupor of ‘Dateline,’ napping, wall-staring, and phone Scrabble—I put my feet on the floor and said to myself, Today is going to be different!

I marched determinedly about my apartment, tidying, making coffee, preparing to work, listening to podcasts. I felt somewhat optimistic. But soon I had tears in my eyes, because I was listening to the news. (It was Tuesday’s stellar episode of “The Daily,” in which Michael Barbaro talked to Dr. Fabiano Di Marco, the head of the respiratory unit of a hospital in Bergamo, Italy. “It’s like a war,” Di Marco said.)

But my goal, in addition to staying informed, was to be productive, and that would require avoiding my stupor. So I took my own advice from the piece I was trying to write: I called a loved one on the phone.

I picked up my landline—yes, landline …

and called Janet, my late mother’s best friend, a retired music teacher who lives on Cape Cod. Janet had e-mailed to see how I was doing during social isolation, decorating her message with shamrocks and kissy-face emojis. It was a great e-mail, but I wanted to hear her voice.

“Sarah!” Janet said. She was smiling—I could hear it. “Let me put down my chanter.” She was practicing her bagpipes; it was St. Patrick’s Day, in the time of the coronavirus, and she was preparing for a one-woman parade. “I’m going to play ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and march down the street,” she said. “I’ll send you a video.”

Talking to Janet, I could hear the amusement and energy in her voice; she’s always ready to laugh, even now, and she’s always up to something. She talks in vivid anecdotes. We caught up, gossiped, railed against political incompetence, laughed our heads off. Hanging up, I felt more alive.

I’ve wanted to write for a long time about the particular joy of talking on the phone.

Not video chat, though that has its charms. (Among them, this week: virtual coffees and cocktail hours, Zoom meetings, seeing how your parents look, saying hi to your favorite rambunctious little kid.) But for sheer connectedness, the phone has something other forms of communication don’t.

For the past few years, I’ve harbored a secret theory—that our love of the intimacy of podcasts, of the near-startling pleasure of curling up with the immediacy of a human voice in our ears, is connected to our loss of that pleasure from talking on the phone.

People too young to have grown up doing so tend not to get why you would do it at all. Suggesting a phone call gets a laugh; saying that you have a landline gets a polite covering-up of something like pity. (A friend of mine, a few years ago, called his younger date, after some cumbersome texting, to sort out meetup logistics. She was freaked out. A phone call? “That’s what my dad does,” she told him. Then he was freaked out.)

In any case, I get it. Messaging has overtaken phone calls for good reason—convenience, desirable asynchronicity, privacy, a certain respecting of boundaries.

When you’re using your phone primarily as a screen, flipping between, say, Twitter, Scrabble, Overcast, Instagram, the weather, your camera, a document, Google Keep, and the neurotic bunch of timers you keep for yourself to try to impose structure on your day (or maybe that’s just me), having your phone suddenly come alive, vibrating, making noise, being overtaken by the name and image of a gabby relative—in short, turning into a phone—can be jarring. (Aaah! What are you doing here?) Suddenly, this person is in your house.

Beyond that, phone calls now tend to take place over crappy-sounding technology—tinnier, spottier, less reliable than during the golden era of the phone gab. It may be hard to remember, under those circumstances, the appeal. Try it today.


Edited article courtesy the New Yorker, written by Sarah Larsen, edited by Seated Massage.