Number one: people tend to assume there’s some kind of emergency when you call them out of the blue.
I’m a texter. I know we all are, but I really am. There are currently 13 WhatsApp groups blowing up my phone, discussing everything from Christmas getaway plans to Rejina Pyo’s s/s 2019 show to what people think of new reality show The Circle. Over in the Messages app, I’m tangled up in five active iMessage threads, on top of exchanges with the seven non-iPhone users I text most regularly. My natural fondness for the written word, combined with an irrepressible need to share everything about myself and know everything about everyone else, means that thumbing out my thoughts and plans comes as naturally to me as breathing.
For the most part, I love being able to converse with such ease. It’s convenient to arrange dinner plans from my desk at work, and it means I’m always in the loop with people I don’t see often enough. And if I’ve had an awful day, it’s comforting to know I can vent into the WhatsApp group containing my closest female friends and get instant love and support, rather than having to wait until the next time we’re all in the same room.
But one side effect of my constant texting is that I rarely use my phone as an actual phone. You know, to make calls. I’m far from alone in this: the UK first began texting more than talking way back in 2012, according to Ofcom data, while WhatsApp is used by a whopping 84% of online UK adults aged 25-34. The only person I regularly speak to over the phone is my boyfriend, who lives in another city.
It’s a far cry from my teenage years, when I’d spend hours each week “hogging the landline” – my dad’s favourite phrase – to talk to my mates. And if I’m honest, I kind of miss ringing people ‘just for a chat’: calling friends and family to see how they really are, rather than only resorting to phone calls when I can’t find someone in a crowded bar. Phone conversations offer a level of emotional intimacy and expression that just can’t be replicated over WhatsApp, and if you can’t meet face-to-face, they’re definitely the next best thing.
So when my editor asked if I’d be prepared to go text-free for a week, in an attempt to rediscover the lost art of the phone call, I agreed to give it a try. Here’s how it went…
Day 1: Monday
My attempt at not texting gets off to a bad start when one of my flatmates WhatsApps with a question about our washing machine. Shortly after, another friend messages to ask whether I managed to get tickets to see Roxane Gay in conversation at the Southbank Centre.
These kinds of interactions, I think, are what texts were invented for: brief, mundane, fact-based exchanges where you don’t need much more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Rushing to leave the house and certain that neither of my friends will appreciate me calling them before work on a Monday morning, I guiltily fire off a couple of quick messages in response. OK: the texting ban starts now.
I had plans to go for a drink with a friend tonight, but he WhatsApps to bail, saying he’s still recovering from a heavy weekend. Usually, I’d send a quick message in reply, telling him not to worry about it. But now, I have to call him.
His phone rings so many times that I’m not sure he’s going to pick up at all. When he does, he sounds nervous, and I wonder if he thinks I’m calling to give him an earful about cancelling.
“Sorry, I know this didn’t need to be a phone conversation!” I blather, feeling strangely panicked. I explain that I’m banned from texting, but I’m totally cool with him bailing. He’s initially a little baffled, but we end up having a proper debrief about our respective weekends, and make plans to have a drink next week instead. My first attempt at reviving the phone call is a success!
Day 2: Tuesday
At work, I see a message flash up in one of my WhatsApp groups. It’s from my friend T, and it begins: “Omg guys, I’m dying of awkwardness.” I open the app instantly, because I’m not made of stone, and find a lengthy story about T witnessing an extremely uncomfortable interaction between two women on a train.
Normally, this is the kind of thing I’d have endless questions about: what did the first woman do? Did anyone on the train say anything? How did they leave it? But I can’t use WhatsApp, and I can’t phone T in the middle of the working day to find out.
I wait for someone else in the group to ask the questions that are burning inside me, but no one does – clearly, nobody else is that nosy – and my thirst for answers remains unquenched. I don’t like this.
Call a friend from uni. His phone rings and rings and rings and rings until eventually it cuts out, but he messages back almost instantly: “What’s up?” Unable to reply by text, I try phoning him again.
This time he picks up, sounding alarmed. But when I explain that I just fancied a chinwag, his tone switches from freaked to exasperated. “Jesus, Moya. I thought there was an emergency or something.” He’s out for dinner, so can’t talk anyway. Phone call success rate: 0/10.
This is something I encounter a few times over the course of this experiment. Several people assume that something bad must have happened if I’m calling them, which is interesting. Are we really so used to texting that we can’t conceive of a situation in which someone would call just because they feel like it?
Day 3: Wednesday
A friend tags me in her Instagram story. I reply with a heart without thinking, she asks if I’ll be at a mutual pal’s upcoming birthday drinks, and within seconds we’re in a full-blown written conversation.
Suddenly, I realise that if texting is banned, surely Insta-chatting must be a violation of the rules too - in spirit, if not in letter. Startled at how easily I slipped back into message mode, and feeling guilty about inadvertently exploiting a loophole, I wrap up our discussion.
My friend F’s dads popped in to see me at Stylist’s offices today. F and I have known each other since primary school and used to talk on the phone all the time as teenagers, but these days, almost all of our non-face-to-face communication takes place via WhatsApp.
Ordinarily, I’d WhatsApp F as soon as her dad left – we know each other’s families very well – and we’d have a brief back-and-forth over message. This time, though, I call her on my way home from work. We have a brilliant catch-up: she tells me all about the guy she’s dating and her new job, I update her on my work and relationship, and we swap updates on our respective families. If I hadn’t called, we probably wouldn’t have talked properly until our next dinner date, which is weeks away. The art of the phone call is being rediscovered, people!
Day 4: Thursday
Try calling my friend S as I leave the office. She doesn’t answer.
Weirdly, my boyfriend and I have never messaged much. In fact, when we first started seeing each other, I told him I didn’t want to text unless we were organising a date. I love being in perpetual contact with friends, but I think constant messaging in the early stages of romance can make things go stale – or create a sense of intimacy that isn’t really there.
That being said… not being able to message him about practical stuff is frustrating. Tonight, he texts to say he’s out with friends, but will call when he’s home. At midnight, I get another text informing me that he’s still out. I’m nodding off, and want to reply telling him to have a good night. But I can’t.
In the end, I fall asleep without having spoken to him at all. Not replying to his texts feels wrong – like I’m being cold or stroppy, when actually I’m not annoyed at all. Here’s something that’s genuinely good about texting: it lets you quietly tell someone you’re thinking of them, without interrupting their day at work or night out. And that’s nice, I think.
Day 5: Friday
Take my lunch to the park around the corner from Stylist’s offices. It’s a sunny day and the place is rammed, yet a businessman in a suit is stretched out across an entire bench, his eyes blissfully closed. Under normal circumstances, I’d instantly message at least one of my WhatsApp groups to moan about this kind of selfishness. But to my surprise, I feel better for not doing so.
This week has made me realise I’m much too quick to use WhatsApp and iMessage for negative reasons: to complain, or share a screenshot of someone else’s embarrassing Facebook status. While there’s nothing wrong with ranting via text if you really need to, I’ve inadvertently become someone who uses text to be, well, a bit of a bitch. Once this week is over, I pledge to no longer use WhatsApp as a dumping ground for every grumpy or snarky thought that enters my head.
Heading via the supermarket on my way home from work, I instinctively go to text my flatmate to ask if she needs anything. Then I call her instead. She ums and ahhs for a while before deciding that no, she doesn’t. The interaction feels like it could have been a text.
Call my friend K. She doesn’t answer, but texts later with a “Sorry I missed your call, I was at work drinks!” All these voicemails are MAKING ME PARANOID.
Day 6: Saturday
My brother moved to Indonesia a few weeks ago, and since he left the UK we’ve been WhatsApping a lot. This week, we haven’t talked at all, and not hearing from him makes me feel like I’m missing – not a limb, exactly, but maybe a lesser-used finger. So I coerce him into agreeing to a FaceTime call (which my editor has said is allowed, given the circumstances).
It’s so lovely that I can’t believe we haven’t got around to it before. He gives me a tour around his new flat and fills me in on the people he’s met and the places he’s been. I update him with funny gossip about our relatives, and ask his opinion on a family issue that’s been niggling away at the back of my mind. It’s a real, enriching conversation in a way that none of our text chats have been, and makes me miss him more and less at the same time.
Day 7: Sunday
I’d assumed I would spend my last day of this experiment calling everyone I could, but when Sunday rolls around I realise I can’t face it. I’ve had some lovely phone conversations this week, but I also feel a bit exhausted, like I’ve overused a muscle that I’d allowed to grow soft. And I’m not sure my ego could take the sound of another person’s voicemail message. So instead, I decide to make a note of everything I’ve learned over the last seven days.
Number one: phone calls are really out of fashion, at least with my friends. People tend to assume there’s some kind of emergency if you ring out of the blue – and some don’t answer at all. Lots has been written about the millennial fear of the phone call; if my one-week experiment is anything to go by, there’s something in that theory.
Number two: Text messages have their uses. One of the things I’ve found most exasperating this week is not being able to use iMessage or WhatsApp to discuss boring, practical matters. Speaking on the phone doesn’t make every interaction more meaningful, and that’s OK.
Number three: When you do get through to someone who’ll actually answer their bloody phone, it can be magical. I’ve had conversations this week that have made me feel closer to, and more engaged with, people I love – conversations I definitely wouldn’t have had if I’d have stuck to text.
The verdict: From now on, I’ve made a pact with myself to try and have at least one proper phone call a week with someone I care about. I’m also going to stop and think about whether I really need to WhatsApp-rant before I do so. But I don’t think I’ll be giving up texting for good. Some habits are just too hard to break.
For one day only on Thursday 20 September, Gemma Cairney has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Express Yourself platform – a digital initiative which aims to inspire us, challenge us and encourage us to explore our creative sides.
For similarly inspiring content, check out Stylist’s September Shake Up initiative here.
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