Phone Fatigue: Voice Calls on the Decline

Is this the end of the line for the cherished telephone call?

For decades, it's played a starring role in our lives and pop culture (can you imagine "E.T.", for example, without it?). But according to some, its heyday could be winding down.

In an article in the August issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson writes: "We're moving… toward a fascinating cultural transition: the death of the telephone call."

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Citing data from media research firm Nielsen, he said the average number of mobile phone calls we make every year is dropping and our calls are getting shorter. In 2005, the average call was three minutes long, now they're not even half of that, he said.

The reason for the phone call's demise?

With the telephone, "we are constantly interrupting one another," he said. "The other tools at our disposal are more polite. Instant messaging lets us detect whether our friends are busy without our bugging them, and texting lets us ping one another asynchronously."

Younger Adults Drive Decline in Cell Phone Minutes Used

A new generation of communicators is avoiding the telephone because, between texting, instant messaging and social networking, they can constantly keep in touch with lighter, more efficient and less intrusive kinds of technology, he said.

Don Kellogg, senior manager for telecommunication research and insights at the Nielsen Co., said that while it's true that the average number of mobile minutes is on the decline, the trend is really pronounced among young adults in particular.

"Younger adults are driving the aggregate average down, but… anybody 35 or older, in general, is using their phones just about as much as they were before," he said.

Between 2008 and 2010, the average number of voice minutes used by adults 18-24 dropped from about 1200 to 900, he said. Adults 24-34 experienced a slightly less dramatic decline.

But data for adult groups above 35 indicate almost no change in minutes over the past couple of years.

Still, though the research may not reflect it yet, younger adults could be slowly influencing the behavior of older adults.

"Everyone I know uses text messaging, including my parents and grandparents, so I never have any need to call them for the most part," said Amanda Bee, 20, a junior at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "I try to avoid talking to [my family] on the phone."

Text Messaging More Efficient Than Phones, Some Say

She said she taught her parents and grandparents to text and, while she still uses the phone to occasionally talk to them, she's much more likely to communicate with her fingers than her mouth.

Instead of struggling through a long phone call with a family member who either talks too much or won't say anything at all, she said, she prefers to text because she can keep conversations from meandering and taking up too much time.

At 62, Mike Farrell, a documentarian and journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, doesn't quite fit the stereotype of the new communicator, but he said he rarely uses the phone to make calls.

"It's not so much that I don't like them, it's just there's hardly any reason to do them when you have text messaging – it's much more efficient," he said.

Professional correspondence is better handled by e-mail, which tends to be more on-task and direct, he said. And personal correspondence tends to be coordinated by text and conducted in person.

About once a week, he said he'll use the phone to talk to out-of-town kids, but, for the most part, e-mail and text suffice.

"I have a landline, but I'm getting very close to dumping it because the only people who call me are my in-laws and people who want to sell me siding or the credit cards I don't need," he said.

Non-Voice Communication Not as Rich as Phone Calls

"I think you can get a lot done in a lot less time with text messaging than with phones," Farrell said.

But though people may find that texting and e-mailing are more efficient, psychologists say something is still lost when people choose to go voice-free.

"You do lose quite a bit – the non-verbal aspects of speech, which are tone of voice, tempo, pitch," said Patricia Wallace, director information technology at the Johns Hopkins University and an expert on information technology and psychology. "The other thing is you have feedback. There's a choreography associated with talking where people develop norms over the centuries of what's appropriate."

By hearing a person's voice, you can determine her mood, motivation and other kinds of emotional information that might influence the content of her speech. E-mail, text messages and other written correspondence are sometimes called "cold" media by psychologists because they give people fewer insights into another's point of view.

But Wallace also said that new methods of communication come with new advantages.

Psychologist: Twitter Messages, Texts Provide Intermittent Reinforcement

Texting isn't just a less time-consuming way to reach someone, it's also lower-risk, she said. A teen boy hoping for a girl's attention might stand a better chance of getting a response if he chooses texting over calling.

But adults appreciate the benefits of that kind of communication too, she said. Fewer social niceties and responsibilities are wrapped up in text messages and e-mails, which don't require a person's full attention on demand.

"The phone call is much more demanding in terms of obligation," she said.

And though written electronic correspondence doesn't give people the benefit of a person's voice, Wallace said, they still can create a strong sense of connectedness.

The intermittent reinforcement of even trivial Twitter posts and quick text messages over the course of a day, she said, can be extremely rewarding.

As new kinds of communication tools develop and we figure out the best ways to use them, phone calls could continue move out of the spotlight. But it's unlikely that they will leave the stage altogether.

"We'll probably use it less but in a more meaningful way," she said.