I hate talking on the phone. Even when I get a call from someone I love, who I genuinely enjoy speaking to, the only thing running through my mind as the caller ID flashes is, Do I have to take this?
A call without a warning text feels aggressive. Is this an emergency? Are you in danger? I hope not, because I almost certainly won’t answer. Even if I see it ringing, I’ll let it go to voicemail. There goes Claudia, I’ll think. I always liked her.
And that’s only if I see it ringing – I typically leave my phone languishing in Do Not Disturb, so the chances of me receiving a call are very low. I once locked my housemate out of our apartment, sleeping blissfully as he knocked for hours, each of his calls directed straight to voicemail.
When I first started dating my boyfriend, I couldn’t believe how much time he spent on his phone. He’s in constant contact with his best friends, trading inane messages throughout the day (the conversation goes something like, ‘How’s your day man?’ ‘Not bad man n u?’ – and it never stops). Meanwhile, like a normal person, I ignore my loved ones’ messages for weeks, then eventually reply with fourteen stream-of-consciousness texts in a row.
I view work calls as an unfortunate obligation. When I worked as a lawyer, an unexpected call from a client always elicited a pang of annoyance. My first thought would be, How did you get this number? And I still need to psyche myself up to make a call for work – go to a quiet place, prepare a little script – sure that if I neglect these steps, something weird will slip out.
If I get someone’s voicemail, that’s game over. I can hear my stilted gibberish, even before it comes out. A friend once left a voicemail in which she only got as far as stumbling over her own name before hanging up (‘This is Ella… Haybrick. (Mutters) Ella Haybrick. (Much louder than necessary) THIS IS ELLA HAYBRICK!’). When I heard that, I felt not just sympathy, but recognition. Yes, I thought. I’ll do that one day.
At the moment, phone and Zoom calls are not just an occasional annoyance, but a way of life. They are the new epicentre of the social world (although with restrictions easing and some restaurants starting to reopen in Australia, possibly not for much longer).
For now, though, our phones hang over our social interactions like watchful tyrants. Like everyone else, I’ve scheduled many catch-up calls over the past few months. I’ve tried everything I can to avoid them, but the problem is, my excuses are limited. My social schedule is wide open – and everyone knows my social schedule is wide open, because everyone else’s social schedule is wide open.
A phone call also isn’t the sort of thing you can justifiably bail on when the world is shut down. You can’t say you were stuck at another event, or that public transport held you up, or that you couldn’t get an Uber. Being sick also isn’t a good excuse, because you don’t need to leave your home (or even your bed) to pick up. You’re stuck either taking the call or saying outright that you don’t want to. Can I say that? I always wonder, before reluctantly picking up.
Sometimes the appointed time will come and go, and the call just… won’t happen. This is best case for me. I see it as a game of chicken – I suspect some of my friends dislike talking on the phone as much as I do; that they’re waiting on the other line, feeling the same tension and relief as the seconds after the designated call time tick by. I imagine us – two people, in two different beds; two fingers poised to press two ‘Next Episode’ buttons – both hoping not to hear from the other.
When this happens, it’s good form to follow up with some apologetic texts the next day. ‘Were we meant to speak last night?’ ‘Yes, I’m so sorry, I totally forgot to call you!’ ‘No, it’s my fault!’ But these are meaningless, as inevitably, it will happen again.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking to the people who call me – it’s the medium I don’t like. The graininess, the far-away-ness. The land of the phone call feels imaginary; when I’m trapped in it, I am painfully aware that real-world seconds are ticking away. I don’t like speaking on the phone because it’s the opposite of sharing an experience. You’re together, but not really. Each of you is siloed in your own world.
But I continue to make and receive phone calls because… how can I stop? Like so many others, I have dear friends who live overseas and interstate – and I love them, even if I hate the way we communicate. Talking on the phone is thoroughly unenjoyable – it pales in comparison to real-world experiences; it doesn’t begin to approximate true togetherness – but I keep it up because I know it’s worth doing. It lets the people we care about know we’re there, even when we’re far away. Often (and certainly lately) it’s the best we have.
That said, please don’t call. I probably won’t pick up.