In Defense of the Casual Phone Call

We are living in anxious times.

I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say about the larger issue of coronavirus. By all means, please stay home, wash your hands, and practice as much social distancing as possible. Here’s an excellent article about how social distancing will help and the best ways to practice it, as well as some cool, informative visualizations that show the scope of the problem.

I do, however, have something to say regarding mental well-being in these anxious times. I, for one, am doing everything my therapist has taught me in order to keep my anxiety under control; indoor exercise, yoga, meditations, and long walks outside (staying six feet away from anybody I see) have all worked wonders. But I won’t lie; I have found social distancing to be surprisingly difficult so far, and as of this writing it’s only been about three days. I’m not a social creature at the best of times, but strangely, I have within me at all times an unquenchable desire to be a social being. As an introvert, the closing of bars and restaurants hasn’t affected me much; I prefer hanging out one-on-one with people, especially people I haven’t talked to in a while.

But of course, like so many things, these interactions have been stripped away over the past week – along with being able to see my coworkers in person, itself a form of social interaction that I didn’t know I needed so badly until it was gone. The ensuing isolation has led me to a strengthening of an old belief:

Casual phone calls are underrated.

I have long been an outlier amongst my generation, in that for most of my friends, I seem to be the only person they know under the age of 40 who still makes casual phone calls. They call their parents, of course, or their friends who are out of town. But often, when I call people instead of texting them, their default assumption is that I’m in some kind of emergency. Even now! A few days ago, I called a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while – and you know what she did? She let it go to voicemail, and immediately texted back saying “Can’t talk right now, but are you okay?”

No judgment, of course; I just find it funny. In a similar way to how many Amazon services (like Audible and Kindle Unlimited) seem predicated on making you forget that libraries exist, smartphones over the years have incorporated so many bells and whistles that using them to call people has become almost laughable. It’s even a running gag on many TV shows: only the old or the deeply uncool use their phone as a phone.

But. . . why?

Most of the time, when I suggest calling someone on the phone because we can’t hang out in person, their suggestion is to use a video chat of some kind, be it FaceTime, Facebook, or Google chat. And while these are all fine alternatives. . .

I kind of hate video chat?

Star Trek completely lied about how cool it was gonna be. You know how people will say they hate parties because they never know what to do with their hands? I hate video chat because I never know what to do with my eyes. Do I look weird if I’m not making eye contact? But I can’t; the camera’s in the wrong place! What part of their face should I be looking at? And why, for the love of all that is holy, do so many video chat apps insist on putting the image of me in the bottom right corner?!? I don’t wanna see my own face! What am I, a masochist?

Point being: a video chat contains so many extra stimuli that it can be distracting. Certainly seeing someone’s face can be nice, but most often, I find that it incorporates all the awkwardness of in-person interactions with none of the upsides.

Chatting on the phone is. . . different. It depends on the conversation, of course, but when I’m just talking to a friend on the phone, there’s only one thing to focus on. You still get the magic of hearing a human voice and responding to it in real time, but because there’s just one stimulus it’s much easier to give the person your full attention.

There’s a relevant quote from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green that I really like: “And then the line was quiet but not dead. I almost felt like he was there in my room with me, but in a way it was better, like I was not in my room and he was not in his, but instead we were together in some invisible and tenuous third space that could only be visited on the phone.”

That’s exactly what the best phone calls are like. Video chats constantly remind me that I am in whatever physical space I am in. On a quality phone call, the world falls away, and you enter that invisible, tenuous third space, where everything is still and peaceful and the only sounds are your own voices and the soft crackle of static. Often, I find this space is the best place to process complicated emotions like. . . well, like anxiety at the state of the world, for instance. Fear for those around you. General panic.

Social distancing is weird. Lately, I find myself both incredibly relaxed (I can wake up whenever I want, don’t have to leave my apartment for any reason, and suddenly have an ample amount of time to work on writing projects and binge-watch cartoons) and incredibly stressed (our healthcare system is laughably broken, and people’s entire incomes are dissolving on a whim!).

And the thing that gets me through it all is the voices of the people I care about. You can text until the cows come home, but nothing is so calming, nothing can pull you back down to the ground, like a human voice. It’s the next best thing to a reassuring hug. But unfortunately, reassuring hugs are cancelled until further notice. The Reassuring Hug Authority is doing its best to follow CDC and WHO guidelines, and you will be paid for all the reassuring hugs you were signed up for through March 31st, but yeah. Not happening for a bit, at least for all us single people out there.

So do me a favor and give someone a call. Of course call your friends who are far away, but don’t forget your friend who lives nearby who you can’t visit right now because of social distancing. They could probably use it. Hell, give me a call if we haven’t talked in a hot second. Even if we’re not the closest of friends, I’m sure I will be glad to hear your voice.

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