Last month on Radio 4 Esther Ranzten, who founded the charity The Silver Line, a helpline offering friendship and advice to older people, urged us to speak on the telephone more. ”I would implore people who have friends, neighbours or family or who are lonely, to pick up the phone. It’s a very potent way of bringing people together. Real companionship for that conversation we all need so badly,” said Rantzen, who is rightly concerned that the less mobile and more vulnerable among us, who rely on contact with people to maintain their sanity and may not be hooked up to the latest version of Zoom, are struggling at the moment.
Rantzen is right to speak out about this, not only for the sake of our aged friends and family, but also for the WhatsApp generation, which is suffering from chronic and potentially damaging “phone fear”. While almost everyone has a mobile phone now, according to a recent survey only 15 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds would choose phone calls as their favoured method of communication.
According to a recent survey only 15 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds would choose phone calls as their favoured method of communication.
Millennials, dubbed the “anxious generation”, apparently see an unplanned phone call as an affront. They feel panicked and overcome by dread when their phone lights up because they know that they will not be able to control the conversation in the way they can a written message. But surely it is exactly that – spontaneity – which makes a phone call such a joyous thing? Perhaps part of the reason millennials are so anxious is because they communicate via such impersonal mediums.
“There is serendipity in a phone call because people inevitably talk faster than they type,” says my husband, who is 20 years my senior, does not suffer from anxiety and is a great proponent of the telephone call for both business and leisure. While working from home during lockdown, he could mostly be heard laughing uproariously from his “office” during the day. I found myself getting quite annoyed and suggesting that he might like to spend some time with his children since he clearly wasn’t working, but really I was just envious. There was a time when I, a millennial, dreamed of being Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, bombarded by hours of idle telephone chatter by the heavenly Duke de Sauveterre, a time when school holidays were spent furiously gossiping to friends on my parents’ landline. “Who have you spoken to today?” my husband would ask at the end of the day, still high from his last phone call. I would reply: “no one except my mother”. “What is wrong with you?”. “I don’t know. My friends just don’t really do that anymore.”
Typing “hahaha”, will never feel as good as hearing a friend bark with laughter down your ear. – Hannah Jane Parkinson
A few weeks into lockdown, though, I was starting to feel rather gloomy, missing my friends, thinking I would never see any of them ever again, so I decided to pick up the phone again. As Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote in The Guardian recently: “Typing “hahaha”, will never feel as good as hearing a friend bark with laughter down your ear.” Two or three picked up and it was frankly exhilarating: we gassed away for over an hour, covering a far greater range of subjects than we would over text, and when I put the phone down, I felt a real spring in my step.
From the rest, I got a string of texts in response and in one case no reply at all. (Clearly in these intervening years, it has become acceptable to answer a phone call with a text message.) One friend replied: “Sorry, was out shopping with the children and couldn’t answer!” She never rang back. Another said: “Sorry I was packing my things into an Uber so had my hands full. Now on a train up to Newcastle”. No call back, even though presumably she would be on a train for the next three hours and therefore free to talk. Another reply came: “Sorry, I was having a nap. All okay?” No call back. Another: “Sorry, I was on another call, I’ll call you back later.” She did, but 4 weeks later. This friend admitted she had been putting it off until she could find a good chunk of time to focus on the phone call, which is a major part of the issue: the phone call is now so rare it has become an event that people need weeks to prepare for.
While Esther Rantzen’s appeal was meant to help lonely older people, it is just as pertinent to the young, who are also headed for isolation if WhatsApp and email continue to be their only modes of communication in these social distancing days. Those who use The Silver Line say even a chat with someone they don’t know makes them feel more human. A phone call a day is just the tonic everyone needs. “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” (Proverbs 12.25).
Olenka Hamilton is a freelance journalist and supplements editor at the Catholic Herald.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.