When my phone rings, it’s almost always my mom, or her mom, or my partner’s mom. It’s always somebody’s mom. For everyone else, the notification is a buzz, a ding, a quick vibration. For all of the not-moms in my life, we communication via text message, Facebook, Twitter, email, chat, or Skype. We connect regularly, but rarely through voice calls. When I do pick up the phone, I last about 30 minutes max. Then, my ear feels hot, my shoulders tense, and I refuse to ask “were you talking to me, or to Dad?”” one more time.
This is indicative of a wider trend. The telephone, as a medium of voice-talk, is in massive decline—at least amongst the texting public. A widely cited 2012 CDC study shows that over half of all American homes rely predominately on mobile devices, with almost 40% living in landline-free homes. And we all know, the cellphone is far better at just about everything than voice-to-voice communication. With smartphones, the talk function seems almost like an afterthought, available in case of emergency.
And this shift away from traditional telephones and their voice-call functions is, I argue, the result of an inherently flawed medium. I don’t prefer alternate forms of communication because I am inept at conversation; I prefer alternate forms because the telephone is inept at facilitating conversation. I’m not even referring here to fuzzy connections and dropped calls. Those are imperfections in the system. I’m talking about a deep social-psychological flaw with the telephone as a mediating device.
Ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts say that the best conversations have a continuous flow, with each speaker picking up just as hir partner leaves off, barely overlapping. This kind of conversation requires intense engagement, and highly accurate cue-reading on the parts of interaction partners. Interruptions and extended silences disrupt the conversational flow, and create a less satisfying interaction.
Off the bat, the telephone puts interactants at a disadvantage by taking away all but vocal cues. The listener cannot see the speaker’s face to tell if s/he is merely taking a breath, or waiting for a response. The speaker remains ignorant to the listener’s nods, not knowing if quiet indicates deep enthrallment, distraction, or outright boredom.
To be clear, I am not advocating a “reduced social cues model” or celebrating face-to-face as the gold standard. I don’t think technologically mediated interaction necessarily reduces social cues, or that social cue reduction is necessarily a problem. I do think, however, that the telephone reduces social cues in a problematic way.
The problem with the telephone goes beyond inhibiting the perfect conversation. Let’s be honest, a perfect conversational flow is rare. More often, we converse imperfectly, with lulls, interruptions, general choppiness. Most communication media, however, have tools which help us manage those imperfections.
Asynchronous communication, like email messages, texts, and Facebook wall posts, do away with many of the difficult conventions of real-time interaction. One need not reply right away, nor disrupt what s/he is doing. The message waits, ready for reply at the recipient’s earliest convenience.
Synchronous communication media, though requiring real-time responses, have mechanisms which help conversations along. Skype allows interactants to see each other’s faces, get the background and context, lets an eye roll to stand in for a snarky reply. When conversing in person, the environment becomes a wonderful tool in interaction maintenance. Don’t know what to say? Wonder out about the restaurant you just passed by, pet the dog in the room, coddle the child, discuss the interesting piece of architecture, or, if all else fails, people-watch for a few seconds until someone comes up with something to say. When engaging through relay-chat (IM), interactants relax their expectations for seamless flow. Each interactant is granted a delay with which to articulate hir thoughts. As s/he types them, the chat feature often informs hir partner that the response is still in development. “Jenny is typing…” is a way for me to show my partner that I am still engaged, and a way for hir to know that it is not yet hir turn. In short, it un-awkwards the silence.
The phone, I argue, is a weak link in our communication ecology, one which—in traditional form—will soon become a relic. Add video, or take away voice, and the device is far more conversationally conducive.
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