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Dialling it back: are we losing the art of the phone call?

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At a time when our offspring seem surgically attached to their mobiles, it surely seems counter-intuitive to worry about the lost skills of telephony. The phone is now our one piece of truly indispensable kit, the thing we always turn round for if we leave it at home. And yet, for a growing generation, basic phone skills are atrophying.

The withering of what was once a fundamental life skill was brought home to me by a conversation with one of the spawn. The girl was waiting for news of something and growing increasingly frustrated at the radio silence. “Why don’t you phone them up?” I asked innocently. She looked at me with a mixture of terror and pity, as if I had just advised her to do something as primitive as darning or turning on a light without asking Alexa to do it.

This is an observable trend among the spawn and their contemporaries. They are articulate kids and have all the social skills in person. They can talk for hours with friends on a phone or video call, but transacting with strangers over the phone comes less naturally and can even make them anxious. They rarely call those they do not know, even when there is a good reason. When they do, they can be uncomfortably direct. It is not just about effort. There is something they find awkward about what they see as cold-calling. If a problem comes up, they are more relaxed about texting or even, God forbid, emailing. It is all strictly impersonal and, of course, ignorable.

But beyond that, they are trained in new methods. If there is a problem, they deal with some form of a customer service chat box where service can vary from the excellent to the awful. Perhaps they may send a chasing text or email. What they don’t seem to do is try to shortcut the system by speaking to another human. Where people of my age see advantage in direct human contact, the spawn’s generation has lost both the instinct and the art of what they see as an obsolete skill.

And they are partly right. For those of us whose formative years were pre-internet, talking to strangers on a telephone was as essential as finding a WiFi connection is today. You called shops to find out if they had what you wanted in stock. Appointments were booked, arrangements made and so on. In the days before Google, I used to call the now defunct Daily Telegraph Information Service in search of facts for my homework. Telephoning someone was the quickest way to find things out. Other times, it was knowing that we had to speak to our friends’ parents before they would pass the phone to the object of our call.

The key to success was a friendly voice, an ability to make small talk and a capacity for building a rapport with someone you did not know. Since the call was often a request for something they had which you needed, learning to ask the right way was essential. All these skills can be acquired in adulthood, especially if work demands it, but learnt behaviours are rarely as good as those naturally gained in childhood.

Clearly many of the old reasons for phoning can now be met more efficiently with a few clicks of a mouse, especially in an era where companies are cutting back phone staff. (Your call is important to us and will be answered in the spring of 2023.) Google will help answer your questions, almost any product or service can be ordered online. So overwhelmingly, the only people you speak to are those you already know and even then, phoning may be the second-choice option.

But while this outlook may be most common among Gen Z-ers, it is not unique to them. Reflecting on the possible awkwardness of a spontaneous call, without prior warning by message, one friend notes that describing the hesitancy makes it seem ridiculous. “It never used to be like this.” Perhaps the knowledge that mobiles have made us perpetually available is making us more cautious about calling without warning?

Outside of work, we are all being trained off the phone as a means of communication with anyone we don’t know. As for landlines, these are now the sole province of relatives, scammers and those kind souls who were upset to hear about that recent car accident for which you were not responsible.

And yet while the web has made many skills obsolete, it is still important to know how to talk to strangers on the phone, to be able to persuade someone to help you in some way even though they have no need to do so. There are plenty of jobs where it is essential but also many aspects of life where it can still make a difference.

Anyway, I’ve run out of space. But if you want any further clarification, do call. Actually on second thoughts, maybe email.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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