Last week, I had one of those absolutely awful days. In Internet-speak, it was a "Worst. Day. Ever." I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say when I got home, I did something unusual: I phoned a friend.
My closest friends and I are in almost daily contact. We text, email, and message one another on Facebook all the time. We send spontaneous photos and little jokes from our phones. What we don't do from our phones, though, is call.
Phone calls have been relegated to be the delivery method for bad news. When my Aunt Sylvia recently died, her daughter phoned me. As soon as I saw the number pop into my caller ID, I knew my 99-year-old feisty aunt had just slugged her last home health-care worker. And sure as sugar, when I called my friend last night, her first question was "Is everything OK?"
No, it wasn't. And I wanted to talk about it. That's right: Talk.
And therein lies the problem: Nobody uses the phone for real conversations anymore. We use our phones for a zillion other things -- directions, ordering groceries, finding the closest place to fill up our empty gas tank -- but we rarely use them to call friends anymore.
Chalk it up to our busy lives, our hectic schedules or whatever other excuse you want to make. The truth is, a phone call is a commitment of time and we often feel like we don't have the free time to make it. But I think I know the culprit here: We spend so much time sharing things online with strangers that we don't have the time to phone our real-life friends and so we settle for second- and maybe third-best ways to stay in touch with them. I'm guilty, as charged.
My closest women friends are scattered around the globe and some evenings we "speak," with a glass of wine in hand, over gchat. I do this frequently with a friend in New York who is battling cancer. Her treatment fuels her insomnia and I'm on the West Coast, so the time zone difference has allowed us to have many late-night gchats. But we haven't had a single phone conversation about her cancer. I suspect it's easier to be brave and stoic over the computer, where no one sees you cry and you can rewrite your message until it strikes precisely the note you hope to convey.
I have another friend with whom I have a texting relationship. Between autocorrect and my fat thumbs, there have been enough misunderstandings so that I now steer clear of any sort of meaningful "talk." She likes seeing photos of my kids, so I send a lot of those.
While connecting and sharing over technology was at first fun, I have to admit I miss the phone. I miss hearing laughter instead of reading "LOL." I want voice inflection, not emoticons to tell me if someone is happy or sad.
Which gets back to why we aren't having phone conversations anymore. I think it's that we are too busy pretending to communicate on social media. There are 1.23 billion people on Facebook, with the average user spending about seven hours a month on the site, according to a Mashable report in 2012. The source of that study, Morrison Foerster's Socially Aware blog, further notes that the amount of time we spend socializing in person dropped from 22.8 hours in 2006 to 21 hours in 2011. I'm guessing that downward spiral has continued since 2011, even if we don't count the guys who check their texts during real-life dinners in real-life restaurants.
Truth is, I don't get it. When I was a teenager, I was thrilled to spend hours on the phone with my friends. Yet when I ask my 17-year-old daughter to check what time her friend wants to meet her, she sends a text. Phoning feels old and stodgy to her.
When you're talking on the phone, you've got to be 100 percent invested. Who hasn't had the experience of talking to someone on the phone and knowing they aren't really listening because we hear them typing in the background? With a texting conversation, you can be doing other things at the same time.
I'm remembering with some fondness the old days when I whined about the guy reeking of self-importance as he walked down the street so deeply engaged in a loud conversation that he plowed into other pedestrians and couldn't muster an "I'm sorry." And who's never encountered someone in the doctor's office waiting room who would have a full conversation in such a loud voice that the doctor eventually put up little signs saying "No cell phone use, please."
Funny, I may be missing them now.