The Healing Power of Old-Fashioned Phone Calls

The humble voice call may just be the premier venue for rich (and healing) conversations.

Every Sunday since things shut down for the coronavirus emergency, I have been taking an hour or two to connect with far-off friends and family. And while I’ve done a few group video calls, I’ve actually logged way more time on old-fashioned voice calls. You know — no speech-to-text, no chance to review before hitting “send.” No bells and whistles; just you and your conversational dance partner, the two of you taking turns making up a shared story that neither of you could ever tell by yourselves.

Apparently, I’m not alone. In early April, AT&T reported a 35 percent surge in voice calls, and Verizon reported handling more than 800 million voice calls per weekday, more than twice as many as on Mother’s Day. Just think of that: Mother’s Day times two, every day. And those calls lasted about 33 percent longer than typical, too. Those numbers are down a little now, but we’re still making more phone calls than on a typical pre-COVID-19 day.

It makes me wonder: Faced with the biggest global crisis since 9/11, why would so many of us return to the humble voice call to “reach out and touch someone” (as the old Bell ads used to say)?

After all, shouldn’t the video call — that signpost that we’ve finally, finally entered the sexy future of Star Trek and The Jetsons — be the clear choice here?

Our intuition is that video would allow for more nonverbal communication, which should translate into a richer experience: it’s more like in-person, face-to-face conversation, right? But that’s not entirely the case. For starters, the technology hasn’t entirely matured; coordinating, connecting, and maintaining a video call is still a hassle. Growing up in the 1980s, our family had a bulky red rotary phone that required dialing your number; my best friend’s phone number was 888–9990, which meant it took me, like, an entire minute to make a connection (if my finger didn’t slip). But I’d still take that over the hassle of helping technologically challenged friends and family figure out how to turn on their cameras and microphones for ten minutes or more.

Even when they work, video calls can leave us exhausted, a phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.” That’s because video calls promise the same rich experience of face-to-face interaction without fully delivering, according to National Geographic. Our brain is looking for all the nonverbal cues it typically processes during an in-person conversation, but even one-on-one video calls offer only a limited view of our conversation partner; the main way we conduct the non-verbal part of the conversation is through prolonged eye contact, the intensity of which can be draining. Group video calls with multiple faces to track are even more brain-taxing.

But I suspect that even if we ever develop flawless, immersive (holographic?) video conferencing technology, plain old voice calls will still hold a special place in our hearts. I suspect that twenty years from now, we’ll still be making voice calls.

Why? Because the voice call is the premier venue for conversations. The very nature of the technology strips away all other distractions, leaving the naked exchange of words front and center. We’re forced to fully invest ourselves in that exchange of thoughts and feelings — to listen to the other, and to respond in a way that not only makes sense, but also honors what the other has said. We can’t rely on a shared activity or physical distractions to carry us along; we have to reach inside ourselves. Conversation—a word derived from the Latin conversari, “to live with, keep company with” — is an essential element of all but the briefest, most transactional phone calls.

This requires more work —and vulnerability — than the carefully parsed poems we craft in our text messages, which may be why so many Millennials are freaked out by the prospect of making a voice call. Good phone conversations require the creative collaboration of both parties, according to Robert Hopper, a former professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote an entire book on the subject, Telephone Conversations (University of Indiana Press, 1993) in which he decodes the complex choreography of even the most casual phone call: “Telephone partners build lines of action across speaking turns much as stage actors do,” he writes. “In telephone conversation, speakers enact an undirected play…. As in a stage play, each telephone partner builds each speaking turn on the bases laid out in preceding turns.”

In other words, a real-time conversation is like being on stage (if only with an audience of one) without a script. My teenage kids may find that prospect intimidating; I think it’s exhilarating. Yes, it’s more work, but it’s work that is worth its rewards. When I spend an hour on the phone with my friends, it’s like we’re partners on an expedition of exploration: Who knows what surprising revelation lies around the next bend?

Among the most prized of those rewards is the laugh-out-loud moment…that unexpected turn in the conversation that causes one of us to laugh, or better, both of us to laugh at the same time; and the sound of that laughter — that funny, uniquely human noise — has a long afterglow. I don’t recall ever “laughing out loud” in response to someone’s LOL on social media (and what thin conversational gruel that is); but virtually every phone conversation I’ve had during these weeks of confinement have had their laugh-out-loud moments, and every time, I find myself still smiling long after the conversation has ended. “When you’re living in isolation, it’s reassuring to make some noise,” writes Sarah Larson in The New Yorker.

On the other end of the spectrum from those bright moments, but just as valuable, is the chance to commiserate over the tragedies and losses of our lives, big and small. In a way, the lighter moments of a long phone conversation establish a foundation of trust that makes it possible to reveal our wounds and worries to someone else. This is uniquely human, too: wounded animals do all they can to hide their vulnerability. But except among the most intimate of friends, going to that scary place requires the running room a long phone conversation provides.

A few weeks ago, I called a good friend who I hadn’t spoken to in almost a year. He runs a youth-oriented travel business to support his large family; not surprisingly, his business is shot for the year. I had suspected that would be the case before I called, but it was good to be able to offer a listening, sympathetic ear. (Isn’t the healing power of listening just amazing?) And, somewhat to my surprise, it was good to hear that despite the enormous challenges he faced, he remained upbeat and hopeful, brimming with ideas and contingency plans. And it turns out hope, like laughter, is also contagious; when we hung up, I had this little ember of it cupped in my hands, a little light against the dark waves of bad news.

Look, if the day ever comes when I can walk a virtual beach side-by-side with the holographic avatar of a good friend, I’ll be there. But for now, faced with the physical, emotional, and spiritual threats of this crisis, I’ll continue to rely on the century-old technology that reliably creates a space for real conversations, because real conversations are healing, and the kind of healing they offer may be what we need most in this moment.

This article is dedicated to my childhood friend, Jim Porter, the guy with the crazy long dial-up number. Give me a call, Jim.

Share your thoughts...