The decline of telephone conversations

Despite the cell phone revolution, people are talking on the telephone less and less.  The phones are increasingly being used for texting and for their other functions instead of calling people in real time and talking to them.  This is true of the younger generations especially, leading to conflicts with their parents and grandparents who complain that “you never call.”  So says this article:

A generation of e-mailing, followed by an explosion in texting, has pushed the telephone conversation into serious decline, creating new tensions between baby boomers and millennials — those in their teens, 20s and early 30s.

Nearly all age groups are spending less time talking on the phone; boomers in their mid-50s and early 60s are the only ones still yakking as they did when Ma Bell was America’s communications queen. But the fall of the call is driven by 18- to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen. Texting among 18- to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period, from an average of 600 messages a month two years ago to more than 1,400 texts a month, according to Nielsen.

Young people say they avoid voice calls because the immediacy of a phone call strips them of the control that they have over the arguably less-intimate pleasures of texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or tweeting. They even complain that phone calls are by their nature impolite, more of an interruption than the blip of an arriving text.

Kevin Loker, 20, a rising junior at George Mason University, said he and his school friends rarely just call someone, for fear of being seen as rude or intrusive. First, they text to make an appointment to talk. “They’ll write, ‘Can I call you at such-and-such time?’ ” said Loker, executive editor of Connect2Mason.com, a student media site. “People want to be polite. I feel like, in general, people my age are not as quick on their feet to just talk on the phone.”

The bias against unexpected phone calls stems in good part from the way texting and e-mail have conditioned young people to be cautious about how they communicate when they are not face to face, experts say.

Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University who studies how people converse in everyday life, said older generations misinterpret the way younger people use their cellphones. “One student told me that it takes her days to call her parents back and the parents thought she was intentionally putting them off,” she said. “But the parents didn’t get it. It’s the medium. With e-mails, you’re at the computer, writing a paper. With phone calls, it’s a dedicated block of time.”

via Texting generation doesn’t share boomers’ taste for talk.

I am not young, but my sensibility agrees with that.  I don’t like to talk on the telephone.  It seems like an imposition on people who are not expecting my call.  I usually don’t mind it when people call me–that is, members of my family or job-related folks–but calls from people I don’t know really can be significant interruptions of a usually busy day.  I much prefer communicating via e-mail.  (To prove that I am not young but old, I haven’t picked up the habit of texting.)  Are any of you the same way?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Winston Smith

    I’m enough of an old geezer that I have never learned to text, on the grounds that it seems like something teenagers do. “OMG Brittany told Megan she has a huge crush on Justin !!!” I don’t Twitt3r, and I don’t have a Facebook or Myspace page. I was typing my college papers on a real typewriter before these kids were born. I think I may actually still own some 8-track tapes.

    With that obligatory harrumph out of the way, the millennials have a point. Sending a text to ask to make an appointment to talk is actually more polite — courtly, even — than interrupting someone with a phone call they have to take in real time, even when busy with more important tasks. The phone call raps, brashly and intrusively, on the door; the text message pauses, hat in hand, on the threshold, like a gentleman.

  • Winston Smith

    I’m enough of an old geezer that I have never learned to text, on the grounds that it seems like something teenagers do. “OMG Brittany told Megan she has a huge crush on Justin !!!” I don’t Twitt3r, and I don’t have a Facebook or Myspace page. I was typing my college papers on a real typewriter before these kids were born. I think I may actually still own some 8-track tapes.

    With that obligatory harrumph out of the way, the millennials have a point. Sending a text to ask to make an appointment to talk is actually more polite — courtly, even — than interrupting someone with a phone call they have to take in real time, even when busy with more important tasks. The phone call raps, brashly and intrusively, on the door; the text message pauses, hat in hand, on the threshold, like a gentleman.

  • James T. Batchelor

    Although I am 60, I agree with the kids. I personally feel as though e-mail combines the best of the written letter with the immediacy of the phone call. The sender can take time to think about what they write and yet, once you hit send, the message is available to the recipient in a matter of minutes. At the same time, the recipient can read the message at a time of their choosing instead of dropping whatever they are doing when the phone rings.

    The cell phone I currently have is somewhat limited in texting capabilities. When the time comes to replace it, I will probably get one with a full “qwerty” keyboard and do a lot more texting.

  • James T. Batchelor

    Although I am 60, I agree with the kids. I personally feel as though e-mail combines the best of the written letter with the immediacy of the phone call. The sender can take time to think about what they write and yet, once you hit send, the message is available to the recipient in a matter of minutes. At the same time, the recipient can read the message at a time of their choosing instead of dropping whatever they are doing when the phone rings.

    The cell phone I currently have is somewhat limited in texting capabilities. When the time comes to replace it, I will probably get one with a full “qwerty” keyboard and do a lot more texting.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I work with youth and this is an issue I deal with all the time. If I want to hear back asap from the youth, I text them, they won’t even answer their phone half the time. And being the person I am talking on the phone can make me nervous, so I don’t mind too much.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I work with youth and this is an issue I deal with all the time. If I want to hear back asap from the youth, I text them, they won’t even answer their phone half the time. And being the person I am talking on the phone can make me nervous, so I don’t mind too much.

  • S Bauer

    It seems to me this is just an extension of what happened with the advent of the telephone (and all the things that make us think we are so much busier now).

    When my grandfather was a pastor, he just “dropped by” to make visits on his parishoners. It was what everybody did. Nobody thought it was impolite. You just stopped what you doing to talk – or you could ask him to stop by later. You were walking and talking with people in the midst of their various vocations.

    For quite a while now the telephone has taken over a large part of how a pastor ministered to people. If you want to to visit someone face to face, you have to make an appointment first. More and more people think it is impolite to just “drop by”.

    Now we have another wall going up seperating pastor from people — and not just from parishoners. The change removes pastors even further from rubbing shoulders with those outside the church.

  • S Bauer

    It seems to me this is just an extension of what happened with the advent of the telephone (and all the things that make us think we are so much busier now).

    When my grandfather was a pastor, he just “dropped by” to make visits on his parishoners. It was what everybody did. Nobody thought it was impolite. You just stopped what you doing to talk – or you could ask him to stop by later. You were walking and talking with people in the midst of their various vocations.

    For quite a while now the telephone has taken over a large part of how a pastor ministered to people. If you want to to visit someone face to face, you have to make an appointment first. More and more people think it is impolite to just “drop by”.

    Now we have another wall going up seperating pastor from people — and not just from parishoners. The change removes pastors even further from rubbing shoulders with those outside the church.

  • http://www.spaceagelutheran.blogspot.com/ SAL

    I suspect my children are going to have difficulty interacting with their peers as none of us have cell phones. I’ve noticed that my younger peers have become distant as I’m no longer able to communicate with them. I’ve noticed that as the younger generation has become more technologically “connected” they have isolated themselves from the possiblity of human contact not prepared and controlled.

  • http://www.spaceagelutheran.blogspot.com/ SAL

    I suspect my children are going to have difficulty interacting with their peers as none of us have cell phones. I’ve noticed that my younger peers have become distant as I’m no longer able to communicate with them. I’ve noticed that as the younger generation has become more technologically “connected” they have isolated themselves from the possiblity of human contact not prepared and controlled.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I wonder if that isn’t so much technology as it is kids have very limited free form contact because they are stuck all day in organized activities be it school or sports.

    The distance could also simply be, they can’t relate to you because you won’t communicate with them.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I wonder if that isn’t so much technology as it is kids have very limited free form contact because they are stuck all day in organized activities be it school or sports.

    The distance could also simply be, they can’t relate to you because you won’t communicate with them.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    Block quote fail, sorry about that.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    Block quote fail, sorry about that.

  • DonS

    I’ve never really enjoyed talking on the phone, so I like the fact that my business phone calls are probably about 20% of what they were 10-15 years ago, emails having taken their place. I also like the idea of scheduling a time to talk on the phone, as it ensures that both parties are free at that time.

    However, SBauer also makes a good point. We are over scheduled, and no longer as spontaneous as we used to be. Technology does place walls between us as people — that is an excellent point. Who just “drops by” to talk anymore? Almost never happens. And an expected phone call from a far away loved one is a simple pleasure — a welcome interruption in the routine, and a reminder that you are loved and thought of. And when you are called at an inconvenient time, you can always beg off, and reschedule the talk. No big deal.

    I have noticed that I know less about what is going on in my clients’ lives now, because of email. When we frequently spoke on the phone, small talk preceded the topic at issue. Knowing these little details about people matters when you are building relationships, and if you are going to practice your vocation with an eye toward ministry as well.

  • DonS

    I’ve never really enjoyed talking on the phone, so I like the fact that my business phone calls are probably about 20% of what they were 10-15 years ago, emails having taken their place. I also like the idea of scheduling a time to talk on the phone, as it ensures that both parties are free at that time.

    However, SBauer also makes a good point. We are over scheduled, and no longer as spontaneous as we used to be. Technology does place walls between us as people — that is an excellent point. Who just “drops by” to talk anymore? Almost never happens. And an expected phone call from a far away loved one is a simple pleasure — a welcome interruption in the routine, and a reminder that you are loved and thought of. And when you are called at an inconvenient time, you can always beg off, and reschedule the talk. No big deal.

    I have noticed that I know less about what is going on in my clients’ lives now, because of email. When we frequently spoke on the phone, small talk preceded the topic at issue. Knowing these little details about people matters when you are building relationships, and if you are going to practice your vocation with an eye toward ministry as well.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    You’ve nailed it, DonS and SBauer. We are so over-scheduled now (and that scheduling function on our cell-phone helps with that) that any kind of spontaneous interaction is a casualty. There was a time, children and grandchildren, when friends would just drop by the house to visit, with no notice at all. Today, at least in the USA (my daughter tells me Australia is different, something she had to get used to as a pastor’s wife there), that seldom happens. We need an appointment for everything.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    You’ve nailed it, DonS and SBauer. We are so over-scheduled now (and that scheduling function on our cell-phone helps with that) that any kind of spontaneous interaction is a casualty. There was a time, children and grandchildren, when friends would just drop by the house to visit, with no notice at all. Today, at least in the USA (my daughter tells me Australia is different, something she had to get used to as a pastor’s wife there), that seldom happens. We need an appointment for everything.

  • http://thoughts-brigitte.blogspot.com Brigitte

    DonS might supplement his e-mails with Facebook, as he will get more small talk and pictures there than he might ever have hoped for.

    Personally, the point about texting rings true to me. The young folks in my life are constantly doing it; however, they are not calling people as much who are important to them who do not text. Therefore, it does create a generational divide and/or a feeling of rejection. It also creates danger for those who may be tech savy but life dumb. They are not receiving the input they need from the people who care about them most.

    The moral of the story: get better at texting? make a point of setting up telephone dates? Either/ or– but do something– don’t let the relationship slide.

  • http://thoughts-brigitte.blogspot.com Brigitte

    DonS might supplement his e-mails with Facebook, as he will get more small talk and pictures there than he might ever have hoped for.

    Personally, the point about texting rings true to me. The young folks in my life are constantly doing it; however, they are not calling people as much who are important to them who do not text. Therefore, it does create a generational divide and/or a feeling of rejection. It also creates danger for those who may be tech savy but life dumb. They are not receiving the input they need from the people who care about them most.

    The moral of the story: get better at texting? make a point of setting up telephone dates? Either/ or– but do something– don’t let the relationship slide.

  • sg

    My 12 year old son has expressed a total distaste for texting. I don’t know why really. We don’t talk much on the phone or text. He refuses to communicate with his friends when they text. He calls them directly and tersely asks what they want. If they tell him something vague, he gets impatient and tells them to quit texting him. If they have a real question, he gets to the point, resolves it and promptly says good bye. I find it amusing.

  • sg

    My 12 year old son has expressed a total distaste for texting. I don’t know why really. We don’t talk much on the phone or text. He refuses to communicate with his friends when they text. He calls them directly and tersely asks what they want. If they tell him something vague, he gets impatient and tells them to quit texting him. If they have a real question, he gets to the point, resolves it and promptly says good bye. I find it amusing.

  • http://www.lordjimemperoroficecream.blogspot.com The Jungle Cat

    I generally text friends who are the same age as I am (it is the best way to get a response, even though my preferred mode of communication is the email). I prefer speaking to family on the telephone (or cellphone); however, one fact that I think many of my elders do not appreciate is that 20-somethings don’t have a lot of money to spend on communication and, ultimately, texting is much cheaper. It’s pretty expensive to communicate on a cellphone for just twenty or thirty minutes (which doesn’t seem like enough for many people).

  • http://www.lordjimemperoroficecream.blogspot.com The Jungle Cat

    I generally text friends who are the same age as I am (it is the best way to get a response, even though my preferred mode of communication is the email). I prefer speaking to family on the telephone (or cellphone); however, one fact that I think many of my elders do not appreciate is that 20-somethings don’t have a lot of money to spend on communication and, ultimately, texting is much cheaper. It’s pretty expensive to communicate on a cellphone for just twenty or thirty minutes (which doesn’t seem like enough for many people).

  • EGK

    The Director of Parish Services in our congregation (a Lutheran Church-Canada title, part of our “diaconate” that can cover a multitude of positions), who in her case is in charge of the youth and young adult activities, says that the only way she can ever get hold of any of them is through texting.

    I resonate with much of the “phone-o-phobia” I hear here. E-mails, facebooking, are much more comfortable because I know I am not disturbing them and they can answer (or not) at their convenience. I don’t mind answering calls, and I’m OK with calling people at work on business, since it’s part of their job to talk to me.

    I have been asked to participate in mass calling for evangelism or fund-raising, and on the couple of occasions I have accepted I have been an emotional wreck after two calls. I cannot figure out how one congregation I am aware of came into being via Telemarketing. Some people are obviously wired differently from me!

  • EGK

    The Director of Parish Services in our congregation (a Lutheran Church-Canada title, part of our “diaconate” that can cover a multitude of positions), who in her case is in charge of the youth and young adult activities, says that the only way she can ever get hold of any of them is through texting.

    I resonate with much of the “phone-o-phobia” I hear here. E-mails, facebooking, are much more comfortable because I know I am not disturbing them and they can answer (or not) at their convenience. I don’t mind answering calls, and I’m OK with calling people at work on business, since it’s part of their job to talk to me.

    I have been asked to participate in mass calling for evangelism or fund-raising, and on the couple of occasions I have accepted I have been an emotional wreck after two calls. I cannot figure out how one congregation I am aware of came into being via Telemarketing. Some people are obviously wired differently from me!

  • DonS

    Brigitte @ 10: I do use Facebook. It is a valuable tool for keeping in touch, particularly with those whom would fall outside of your normal phone circle, such as more distant relatives, high school and college friends, your broader circle of friends, etc. And, it is a great tool for sharing photographs!

    I don’t consider it an appropriate business tool, however, at least not for a law practice. I would never communicate with a client through FB. And it doesn’t address the issue of spontaneity or the simple pleasure of having a conversation with a loved one.

  • DonS

    Brigitte @ 10: I do use Facebook. It is a valuable tool for keeping in touch, particularly with those whom would fall outside of your normal phone circle, such as more distant relatives, high school and college friends, your broader circle of friends, etc. And, it is a great tool for sharing photographs!

    I don’t consider it an appropriate business tool, however, at least not for a law practice. I would never communicate with a client through FB. And it doesn’t address the issue of spontaneity or the simple pleasure of having a conversation with a loved one.

  • Cincinnatus

    I hate texting, telephone conversations, Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace.

    Email is useful, though.

  • Cincinnatus

    I hate texting, telephone conversations, Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace.

    Email is useful, though.

  • Brigitte

    Makes sense DonS. I do have one business connection that works well with Facebook added in.

  • Brigitte

    Makes sense DonS. I do have one business connection that works well with Facebook added in.

  • Booklover

    I much prefer the medium of e-mailing to the phone call. I can measure my words and retype them if needed before sending it off. Conversely, it is harder to take back what is already spoken. I also like having a print copy of what I have said. And, I dislike interrupting people with a phone call. I’d rather have them open an e-mail at their leisure.

    I have been reprimanded by church people for using the medium of e-mail rather than phone, because true emotions can’t be detected over e-mail. But I would still rather use planned words and written words that can be looked back on for proof of what was said.

    I communicate with my grown sons more successfully by text. They feel that phone calls and e-mails are almost archaic.

    I don’t generally look upon phone calls to me as an interruption, because I have caller ID and can choose whether or not to answer.

  • Booklover

    I much prefer the medium of e-mailing to the phone call. I can measure my words and retype them if needed before sending it off. Conversely, it is harder to take back what is already spoken. I also like having a print copy of what I have said. And, I dislike interrupting people with a phone call. I’d rather have them open an e-mail at their leisure.

    I have been reprimanded by church people for using the medium of e-mail rather than phone, because true emotions can’t be detected over e-mail. But I would still rather use planned words and written words that can be looked back on for proof of what was said.

    I communicate with my grown sons more successfully by text. They feel that phone calls and e-mails are almost archaic.

    I don’t generally look upon phone calls to me as an interruption, because I have caller ID and can choose whether or not to answer.


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