The return of the phone call

The coronavirus isn’t deadly in every way. It’s brought back to life two old-fashioned means of communication: phone calling and letter writing.

It’s been nearly 13 years since Nielsen announced the phone call’s adieu in the United States. In autumn 2007 the number of texts sent on cellphones topped the number of phone calls. Today three-quarters of American households no longer have landline phones, and cellphones convey five times more text messages than voice calls.

Actual voice calls are reserved mostly for our mothers and for emergencies. Phone chats with my friends have been rare for years.

It was therefore striking that last Friday I had seven long phone conversations with friends as we coped with isolation.

Texting or email could have confirmed that the other person was all right. Phoning served an additional purpose: to hear the voice of an intimate during this weeks-long, maybe months-long, seclusion; to have thoughtful communication, not just an answer to “Are you okay?”

Email and texting don’t meet the need for intimacy and immediacy. An email may be answered hours later or not at all. A text message is likely to be hasty and impersonal. Neither gives the comfort of hearing an actual, familiar voice.

A telephone call can be as intimate and long as the two or more of you desire. Under the present circumstances, it’s nearly guaranteed that a ringing phone will be answered.

During this episode even my college-age nieces, who are major texters like the rest of their generation, are preferring to talk to their friends by voice chats. Admittedly, it’s with the addition of video via FaceTime, but they consider FaceTime like a phone call plus. “It’s the same as the phone except with a video stream so you can see each other,” Alex said.

They’ve discovered the limitations of texting.

“It’s way easier to talk to people over FaceTime than by text if you are trying to catch up and have an extended conversation,” Ashley said.

They’ve also phoned — audio only — their grandmother in an assisted living residence. Frequent calls from her family members are a lifeline for my mother, who can’t have visitors and doesn’t have a cellphone or a computer.

Concern about elderly people in senior residences motivated people to revive another old-fashioned style of communicating: a note or a card in a stamped enveloped delivered by the US Post Office.

Like phone calls, greeting cards and handwritten letters on stationery were replaced by electronic messages years ago. But last week USA Today reported about people who are initiating or volunteering for projects to make cards for elderly residents of nursing homes and retirement facilities who are confined to their rooms, seeing only the staff who deliver their meals and medicine. In case volunteers worry about transmitting the coronavirus on stationery, the story said that such transmission is “extremely unlikely.”

When we’re finally released from isolation, it’s likely that these old-fashioned modes will fade again. But I doubt that they’ll entirely disappear, especially phone calls. There will always be times when we are separated from loved ones, by miles if not by a virus, and want to hear their voices and really talk with them.



”I’m finding it hard to control my anger with Donald Trump’s response to this crisis. I have doctors and nurses and first responders begging for masks, equipment, and more tests. … Donald Trump promised to deliver for all the states weeks ago and so far has done very little. This is the time for serious people, not the carnival barkers that are tweeting from the cheap seats. All I can say is get to work or get out of the way.”
— Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker

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