When I was seven, I joined the Brownies. At the time, becoming part of Baden-Powell’s famous organisation felt very grown up. However, when I reflect on the experience, I realise that being a Brownie is worth doing only if you start when you’re very young. It’s full of peculiar rituals, and only now that I am 31, and no one incentivises me to do anything by offering me a special badge, do I recognise how odd some of them were
One in four UK smartphone owners does not make phone calls weekly
We were given badges for applying bandages to our ungrazed knees, remembering to keep a sewing kit in the pockets of our culottes, and successfully using a payphone to make a call. I’ll always remember the day 24 Brownies were walked into the nearest village, and each given a 10pto call our mums and tell them that we were still at Brownies, everything was fine and that we would see them in 40 minutes.
From that moment, I saw telephone conversations as exciting events. They were fraught with romance, glamour and danger, and could only be approached if you were under strict supervision, unless you were a proper adult. I would have been overwhelmed if anyone had predicted that when I was an adult, I would have a portable phone for my exclusive use. I think I would have collapsed with shock if I had been told that I could use it to read books, play games, argue with strangers and identify vaguely recognisable songs that were being played in bars. If someone had said that I’d barely bother to make calls at all, I’d have told them they were a liar. But it’s true. More than three-quarters of all adults in the UK own smartphones, but 25% don’t use them to make calls.
Can we blame millennials for the demise of the phone call? Most of the twenty- and thirtysomethings I socialise with would rather suck Donald Trump’s toe than make or receive a call in order to have a chat. We’re in touch with each other constantly, but written communication allows us to participate in the conversation at the pace we choose. We don’t have to worry about misreading anyone’s tone when the words are laid out in black and white.
However, it seems that phone-call phobia definitely isn’t confined to a single generation. Jeremy Corbyn’s aides complained that they were unable to reach their boss on the telephone this week to discuss “traingate” because he was busy making jam.
Perhaps it’s not the phone calls themselves we object to, but the feeling of being ambushed by them
Many millennials struggle with mental health, and we’ve been dubbed the “anxious generation”. As an anxiety sufferer, nothing fills me with dread and terror like a phone call from a withheld number. The trouble is that the issue exacerbates itself. Because we don’t call for chats, I assume that whenever anyone does try to reach me on the telephone, it’s because of a bad, sad, serious emergency and I need to be reached urgently, possibly for a telling off. So I fling the phone from my hand, as if it’s a live snake, and then get a voicemail from someone who was just ringing for a catch-up. “But it’s not urgent, we can just do it on WhatsApp.”
Perhaps it’s not phone calls themselves we object to, but the feeling of being ambushed by them. One worker in their 20s told the Wall Street Journal: “Calling someone without emailing first can make it seem as though you’re prioritising your needs over theirs.”
That’s right. The millennial attitude towards phone calls is actually about manners. We’ve grown up with so many methods of communication available to us, and we’ve gravitated towards the least intrusive ones because we know how it feels to be digitally prodded on a range of different channels. Speaking on the telephone is an event, and we don’t want to avoid it – we just need to be sure that both parties have a chance to prepare for it. We want a chance to compose and edit our thoughts, in the way we do when we’re writing them down.
There is an element of mindfulness involved too. Thanks to our phones, we’re never doing nothing, and if we’re surprised by a phone call we might struggle to give the caller our full attention. If we know when to expect it, we can at least try to focus in a way that we’re not always capable of during other moments of our lives.
It’s fair to say that young people can still see the value of a phone call, but perhaps we understand it as something serious and significant, to be used in much more specific contexts and shared with a select group of people. We all have an inner circle who would be allowed to interrupt us for a chat when we’re in the middle of making jam. Everyone else will have to make do with a message.
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