The other night my friend Margot called. It’s not unusual for me to hear from Margot — we’ve been friends for more than 30 years, email frequently, have dinner every month or two, and I stay over at her house whenever I’m in town. But Margot never calls. Practically no one does; my few surviving telephonic friendships antedate the internet. But Margot has a cold, and because her husband is immunocompromised, she’d had to quarantine herself in their guest room; she was, in effect, the invalid mother confined to her room upstairs in some Victorian novel. She’d been just about to email me when she thought, why would I email? and picked up the phone.
Once I’d ascertained that it wasn’t an emergency, her call was a pleasant surprise. We talked for half an hour or so, and it cheered us both in a dark, uncertain time.
Inspired by our conversation, I started surprising other people, in these first few days of quarantine, by calling them up just to chat. They, too, seemed pleasantly surprised. We’d talk for a half-hour, 45 minutes, an hour or more — about what a weird, unprecedented time it is, how disastrous to have no one competent in charge in the crisis, how much food we have, what the local stores are like, how seriously we’re taking the restrictions on our movements, how it affects our relationships (do you hastily break up rather than be trapped for months with the wrong person? Is a pandemic a good excuse to reconcile with an ex?). We made jokes about it and laughed together from opposite coasts, like kids cracking up at a funeral.
If, like me, you’re unlucky enough to be quarantined alone (or, even less luckily than me, quarantined with the wrong person), before long you’re going to find yourself starved for some human interaction, even if you think of yourself as an introvert. In one sense, we’ve never been better equipped to endure long periods of social isolation, since we’re all pretty much shut-ins now anyway and are more connected to the “outside world” (meaning one another) than ever before. But we’re still going to have to get inventive about ways to approximate human contact in the weeks and months to come. This may include innovations like movie simulcasts and virtual happy hours, but also a revival of the good old telephone. There is no substitute for touch, sadly, but the warm timbre of a human voice in your ear is more real, more present, than text on a screen. (AT&T’s old slogan was “Reach out and touch someone.”) When you hang up after a phone call, you feel some of the residual glow of having been with another human being.
I know that younger generations have a bone-deep horror of ever talking on the phone; it’s axiomatic among them that anyone who actually calls you is a grandparent, scammer or psychopath. They would sooner text, email, Skype, FaceTime, Snap, Kik or just get into an experimental matter/energy teleporter and hope for the best than actually call someone up and say hi. But this is a learned anxiety, bred of unfamiliarity; their telephonic social skills have atrophied from disuse.
In the mid- and late 20th century, the telephone was addictive tech to adolescents, like the latest fashionable apps are now. It was a standard joke, a trope about teenagers: They spent literally hours on the phone every day, talking about nothing at all. My friend Felix and I used to debrief every afternoon in the latchkey hours after middle school. We’d conduct phone surveys with strangers. For a while Felix would call me every day at 4 p.m. just to play me the theme from “Hawaii 5-0” as it aired on our local channel. Sometimes he’d ask me to set the phone inconspicuously on the counter and “let me monitor your house.”
In adulthood, my friend Harold would phone me every Sunday night while he was Ironing the Pants, in the dark valley of despair before he girded himself to resume his working life. We devised some of our most inspired bad ideas and dastardly plans during these conversations; if the transcripts of those calls are ever published, we will both be canceled for life. Since my friend Lauren moved across the country, we schedule a phone date every month or two to catch up, dish and revisit the Big Questions; we’ve had serious summit talks, fallings-out and reconciliations without ever seeing each other. When Kati Jo and I were deliriously in love long-distance, we’d call each other late at night with nothing to say, and just listen to each other breathe.
All new technologies create their own adaptive behaviors, and phone conversations have a shape and rules of operation all their own. They occupy a sweet spot of intimacy and civility somewhere between real life and the internet: The effect of two disembodied voices taking counsel in the ether allows for more direct, intense, emotional conversations than you could easily face in person, but the real-time feedback of the other person’s tone — even if it’s a telltale punitive silence — inhibits the posturing, invective and unintentional escalation of exchanges online. The treacherous flattening of tone for which email is notorious is not a hazard on the phone; no one ever has to add “:)” or “jk” or “/s” after something they say out loud.
Watch people talking on the phone; they gesture, pace, make faces, emote, act out anecdotes and jokes, like people pantomiming their actions in virtual reality. I often forget exchanges I have online (which can be embarrassing if you’ve made plans or promises); they evaporate like dreams as soon as I’m offline. Phone conversations last in your memory; they have weight and consequence.
A friend of mine once proposed an idea for an app called LandLine: The aural quality would be crystalline, calls would never drop, but it would cost 50 cents a minute to call outside your city (less after 7 p.m. and on Sundays), and every once in a while your mom would pick up and remind you that you weren’t the only person in this house who needed to use the phone. It would be nostalgic for boomers and Gen X, who selectively misremember the 1960s through the ’90s, and a novelty for millennials and Gen Z, who mistakenly idealize them.
Margot and I were reminiscing about some mundane artifacts of the telephone era, made precious by extinction, the same way our boring routines from week ago now seem like a lost utopia: dial tones, busy signals, “the number you have reached is not in service,” *69, 411 for Information, the Time lady, emergency operator break-ins, those hideous screeching beeps if you left the phone off the hook too long. Yelling at your sibling to get off the line. Secretly listening in and covering the receiver to mask your breathing. Misdialing the number on a rotary phone and having to start all over again — a pain if it had any zeros in it. The dexterity challenge of a call-in contest. The audible distance of overseas calls, like the tinny voice and interplanetary crackle of mission control. The excitement, somatic as the response to your ringtone or text alert, of someone calling your name from the other room, saying, “It’s for you.”