Why I Silence Your Call, Even When I'm Free
The New York Times October 06, 2013
My cousin Stacey in San Francisco called recently. We hadn't spoken since she visited me the previous month, and I missed her. I was sitting in my office, catching up on e-mail while refreshing my Twitter feed every few minutes. Hardly too busy for a chat.
And yet, I watched the call come in without touching my phone. I didn't listen to the voice mail she left either but fired off a text instead, apologizing for being too busy to talk and proposing that we plan a call for the next day.
Why the lie? I had time to talk. I had the privacy and quietude I rarely have at my home full of little children and happy chaos. Some of my best conversations of all time have been with Stacey. But my reflex was to avoid her call.
These days, I hardly ever pick up. Most of my daily phone-based exchanges are conducted via text and messaging on social-media platforms. With those, I'm rapid-fire on the turnaround. Every ping signaling a text or swoosh alerting me to a Twitter direct message feels like a tiny gift in waiting. The trill of an unexpected incoming call, on the other hand, feels like a potential demand on my time and attention.
Stacey's call probably would have fallen into this category. She was going through a difficult time. Her five-year relationship with her boyfriend was falling apart, and she was laid off 18 months earlier. While she couldn't bear to live another second with her almost-ex, she also couldn't afford to venture out into the exorbitant San Francisco housing market on her own.
Stacey hadn't responded to my text, but I wasn't worried. We would catch up. We always did.
A week later, she texted: "Can you talk tomorrow around 9:15 or 2?" I was actually quite busy that day, preparing to host a company event in the evening. But Stacey's prefacing her call with a text felt different. Softer. Less intrusive. "I'll call you at 2!" I replied.
"You didn't listen to my voice mail last week, did you?" she asked when we finally spoke.
"Uh. . . . "
"I know," she sighed. "You never listen to your voice mail. Just delete; I'm fine."
We talked for an hour, mostly about her ailing relationship and her housing situation, as I anticipated. But it was an easy conversation. She'd just been approved for a great studio apartment. The prospect of being single again was starting to offer her glimmers of new possibility, instead of frightening loneliness.
Afterward, I listened to her voice mail from the previous week. It was almost unintelligible through her sobs. She was having a bottom-of-the-well moment, utterly distraught by the Big Picture of her life, not one thing in particular but the sort of malaise that strikes from every direction and gobbles you whole. She simply needed me to keep her company on the phone while she freaked out. To tell her everything would be O.K.
Hearing that message slammed me with guilt. When had I become a person who prioritized emotional convenience over the needs of those closest to me? Because really, that's what my phone avoidance is about: delaying the on-the-spot engagement required by another human voice. I'd been coasting along on what seems like a new norm: Nobody picks up. Why should I?
Lesson learned, I resolved to change. Unless I was legitimately occupied, I promised myself I would start picking up the phone whenever it rang, regardless of any disruption the conversation might bring. I would become a more spontaneous, generous friend.
I mentioned the New Me in passing to many people in the weeks after Stacey's voice mail, including Stacey. Guess what? I'm a person who answers her phone now! Call me and see.
But hardly anyone has put me to the test. My phone continues to chirp throughout the day with text, e-mail and Twitter notifications, but full days pass without a single ring. My will to recondition myself came too late; my friends, family and I have already trained one another to live by the new rules of engagement: Call only if truly necessary. Text first.
As a result, the desire to change that I felt so urgently after Stacey's call has since faded. It's an instinctive preference, seemingly shared by nearly everyone I know, for the low emotional risk of communicating via words on a screen. I might force myself to answer unplanned calls these days. But I'll always hesitate first.