It's a truism that people—especially young people—spend a lot less time talking on the phone now than they once did. I don't have good numbers to cite, but the personal and anecdotal evidence seems pretty compelling. Where once I made and received dozens of calls a day, those have now been reduced to just a few. I roll over so many minutes on my mobile plan it feels like I could talk nonstop for the rest of the year and not run out. But I probably won't.
And it's not just me. This is true with most people I know, in both my personal and professional lives.
Have phone, won't talk?!
But why? It seems counterintuitive that now that we all carry telephones around with us 24x7, we spend less time talking on them than when they were tethered to our homes and offices (and the occasional phone booth).
A recent article in the Atlantic by Ian Bogost blamed the decline in voice calling on design and quality/reliability issues with mobile phones compared to the more mature infrastructure and ergonomics of the classic home telephone handset. There are some grains of truth in his argument (the Western Electric model 500 was pretty awesome, and a lot of mobile voice connections are awfully poor), but Bogost misses the key point. The real factor isn't the design of the home or office phone, but its location. Or lack thereof.
Ironically, the very ubiquity of phone connections has created a powerful social barrier to actually calling someone on the phone.
Let's break down the differences between calling a mobile phone and a landline. When you call a landline, you're typically calling a place, not just a person. If no one is there, obviously, they won't pick up. If they're out having dinner when you call the office, then you get their voice mail. If you call their home number when they're not at home, they don't answer. More to the point, they're not bothered by the attempt. They probably don't even know you called unless you leave a message for later.
But when you call someone's mobile phone, you typically have no idea where they are or what they're doing at that moment. You could be interrupting anything—from a critical business meeting to a romantic interlude. Sure, if the person is busy they don't have to answer, but even the ringing (or vibrating) can seem like an intrusion.
Texts, emails, and messages are as intrusive
That's how you can end up sending a flood of texts or emails just to set up an agreed-upon time for the call. Back in the day, when those methods weren't as available, you'd just call (and use that call or leave a message to set up the next one if the original time wasn't convenient).
The flip side of all this, of course, is that the lack of voice calls doesn't mean a drop off in communication. The aforementioned emails and texts and tweets and messages and status updates and video conferences and so on mean the stream of communications runs faster and more consistently than ever before. Even if those communications aren't always as deep and rich as voice calls can be, the mobile era means that low-level engagement can be far more continuous than voice calls typically allow.
Still, while those low-engagement communications have supplanted many interactions that previously required a voice call, they don't fully explain why making a phone call today feels so much more intrusive than it once did. Blame that on the mobile phone that's always in your pocket ready to interrupt you—with the anxiety of possible bothering someone spilling over into all voice calls, as more and more people rely exclusively on mobile connections.