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Outdated and awkward, or good for our health? Speaking on the phone could make us happier

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Telephone

We’ve abandoned the phone call in favour of WhatsApp groups and emojis, but experts say going back to our teenage phone habits could benefit our relationships.

Then she was 24, Hester worked at a TV production company. One day, sitting at her desk, she accepted a phone call a work friend transferred to her.

“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me,” said a man’s voice. “It’s Kelly.” 

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Hester had met Kelly when they were teenagers at a summer activity camp. The day Kelly phoned Hester at her office, it was his 26th birthday. He’d taken the day off work and was watching daytime TV chat show The Wright Stuff when Hester, who worked on it, appeared on screen. He remembered her, waited for the credits to roll to find out the name of the company, and then called up the office.

“That phone call changed my life,” says Hester, who now runs her own PR and marketing business. She and Kelly went on a date the following week. Three months later, they went travelling together. They have now been a couple for 18 years, married for 11 and live in Reading with their two children. “It was a real Sliding Doors moment,” she says.

With the advent of FaceTime and Skype, many of us have gone off phone calls.

These days, we are more used to picking up the phone for practical reasons: all the fiddly, joyless drudgery that falls under the heading of ‘life admin’. We hear, “Press one to report a lost or stolen card” or “You can also pay your council tax online at www dot…”, far more often than we hear, “Oh my god, let me tell you about what happened!” or “I love you”. 

Even with the advent of FaceTime and Skype, we still default to communicating with the written word. WhatsApp has 150 billion users worldwide, with 65 billion messages being sent every day. In the first quarter of this year, 2.38 billion people used Facebook in some way. It’s estimated by business intelligence company Domo that around 8 trillion texts are sent every year.  

We’ve gone off phone calls. We swerve answering when it’s an unknown number. Memes about hating talking on the phone abound. But it wasn’t always this way. Don’t you remember spending hours talking to your friends as a teenager, sat at home on a landline? Or, slightly later, gradually loosening your grip on your mobile as you fell asleep listening to the voice of the person you loved. We romanticise getting proper letters in pen and ink, but we’ve forgotten the pleasure and sense of connection we get from hearing someone’s voice. 

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“We are driven towards rich communication,” says psychologist Dr Kate Muir, a researcher at the University of Bath. “Humans are social animals and it’s vital to us that we remain in communication with one another. Our natural preference is for face-to-face communication as it gives us more cues as to what the other person is feeling and thinking, but as technology has developed, the number of these interactions has dropped. A phone call offers the nearest amount of information to a face-to-face interaction: we can hear when someone is smiling or frowning. You don’t get that on email or instant messenger. It’s easy to misinterpret a text message.”  

We all know the feeling of a written-down joke not coming off, or of sincere praise sounding sarcastic in a text. It’s not surprising: a study at UCLA found that in a face-to-face setting, just 7% of a message’s meaning is conveyed by the words, with 38% coming from your intonation and the rest from non-verbal cues such as facial expression and body language.

In a study last year, researchers at Yale University found that our emotional intelligence seems to be more acute when someone’s voice is the only cue, and that our attention to subtle differences in vocal tone increases. Therefore phone calls, the study suggests, are more intimate.  

“Humans are social animals and it’s vital to us that we remain in communication with one another", says Dr Kate Muir

“You do feel more connected than you would on a video chat,” says long-term phone call fan Martha, 27, a charity fundraiser. “I can call my sisters or my best friends and feel as though I’m part of their day – there’s nothing staged, there’s a casualness to it. I can be walking to the bus or doing the washing up and the phone call will just slot straight in.”

“Telephone calls allow for nuances, a sense of immediacy,” says Charles Spence, a professor in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. “If I hear somebody’s voice I know they are a real person, not a bot. Text and picture communication may be more efficient, but it can also bring distance and a sense of isolation.”  

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So, how can we fall back in love with talking on the telephone? It seems, for many people, that close female relatives – mums, sisters and grandmothers – are the people we call most frequently. We find it easier to be vulnerable with them and, on a very practical level, they are more likely to pick up. Think of these people as your starting block. You can and do speak on the phone, you just want to expand the group you can communicate with.

“If you want to go back to just chatting and embracing the kind of conversation that can go anywhere, then it can be a good idea to tell your friends what you’re thinking,” says Simone Bose, a counsellor at relationship advice service Relate. She recommends starting in a mode your friend is comfortable with, such as a text message or a DM. “And then say that you want to have a chat on the phone,” says Bose. “Then you can call them without them thinking it’s an emergency or that something bad has happened.”  

"Text and picture communication may be more efficient, but it can also bring distance and a sense of isolation”, says Charles Spence

We have become slightly too used to telephone calls being a way to transmit bad news. “People can feel threatened by phone calls because they expect the worst,” says Bose. “Or they may simply think you want to have a big, intense conversation and they worry about the time it will take up.”

Bose suggests countering this by deliberately making shorter calls and stating what you’re doing at the beginning of them: “It’s very easy to say, quite casually, ‘Oh I just phoned to say hi, I won’t be two minutes’.” 

Our relationships do benefit from this kind of communication. “It’s the way you bond,” says Bose. “A spoken conversation is more spontaneous and unplanned. You can hear what makes a person laugh. All these things are ways we bond.”  

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Adults have never had a great deal of time, Bose says, so being busy is no excuse. “We were like this before, with all sorts of pressures in our life. What’s different is that now we have a mode of communication that requires less effort and investment, so we use it. But what we really need to ask ourselves is whether that is the level of effort our friends deserve.” Think they deserve more? Then it’s time to dial in.            

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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