Why Phone Calls Have Made a Comeback

Since coronavirus first appeared, we've been making more calls and talking longer. Giuseppe Milo [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

In these chaotic times, there's something soothing about hearing the voices of people you love.

Long before this whole coronavirus mess started, if my mom didn't hear from me or one of my siblings for a day or two, she would call up one of us, always saying, "I just wanted to hear your voice."

Now, we all get it.

While so many of us are isolated and practicing social distancing, talking on the phone is one way we can regain that sense of community we've lost.

The New York Times reports that phone calls have made a comeback during the pandemic. Verizon told the Times that it's now handling an average of 800 million wireless calls daily during the week. That's more than double the calls made on Mother's Day, which is one of the busiest days of the year for phone calls. In addition, the length of calls is up 33% now compared to an average day before the outbreak. Similarly, AT&T; reports that the number of cell calls have increased by 35%.

Many of us are also talking to family on video chat. (My parents talk to relatives in Italy and love seeing my dog on Skype.) And there's nothing like recreating a big family get-together by cramming everyone on a screen Brady Bunch-style on Zoom.

It's great that you can see the people you're talking to. But sometimes, something gets lost when video is involved.

Video calls and apps are "undeniably brilliant," writes The Guardian. "But there's a performance involved, distractions, people coming and going. If you want to actually say something to someone, just call them. Nothing beats the reassuring intimacy of a human voice straight into the ear."

Losing landlines

a young man talks on the family phone in the kitchen
It wasn't that long ago when the phone was in the kitchen — and everyone in the house knew who you were talking to. Victor Fitzpatrick [public domain]/Flickr

When we're calling, most of us are doing it on cellphones instead of landlines. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the second half of 2016 was the first time that a majority of American homes had only wireless phones.

If you're old enough, you might remember having one phone for the whole family — usually attached to the wall with a corkscrew spiral cord. Before caller ID, you didn't know who was calling and you didn't know who in the household was going to pick up if you were the caller — and everybody in the family had a handle on everyone else's business.

"The shared family phone served as an anchor for home,” Luke Fernandez, a visiting computer-science professor at Weber State University and co-author of "Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Feelings About Technology, From the Telegraph to Twitter," tells The Atlantic. "Home is where you could be reached, and where you needed to go to pick up your messages." With smartphones, Fernandez says, "we have gained mobility and privacy. But the value of the home has been diminished, as has its capacity to guide and monitor family behavior and perhaps bind families more closely together."

Now that we do our business by cellphone, we don't know who anyone is calling or texting or Skyping, unless we're on the other end of the line.

Reaching out

stack of phone books in New York
In some places, religious and governmental leaders are reaching out by phone to check in on community members by splitting up the phone book. Michael Mandiberg [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

But now that so many of us are hunkering down, we're turning back to our phones to find family.

"We've become a nation that calls like never before," Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), tells the Times. "We are craving human voice."

In some places, church leaders are reaching out to their community via old-fashioned phone calls.

At St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Longmont, Colorado, volunteers are ringing the parish's 2,900 families.

"They're used to coming into our doors, and now we're kind of flipping that and going out into their telephone lines," Rev. Daniel Ciucci tells KDVR.

In Dickinson, North Dakota, the mayor and city council members divvied up the city phone book in late March to call residents to check in.

"They shared stories of faith, friendship, health and vigilance. The people I called to check in on ended up helping me more. They gave me a sense of purpose for the week and unknowns ahead," wrote council member Katie Pinke in The Dickinson Press.

"What would happen if we all used this time of social distancing to reconnect the old-fashioned way, by telephone? Landline or mobile phone, start dialing. Skip the text or social media message. Those you haven’t talked to in ages or even acquaintances who could benefit from a conversation."