When Texting Isn’t Enough and Video is Too Much

Using cell phones to make voice calls is fashionable again

I’ve texted long conversations, quick check-ins, and far too many birthday and holiday greetings. I’m not necessarily proud of this. Texting your thoughts and feelings is akin to shouting into a paper bag and leaving it on someone’s doorstep to open and listen to later. It’s impersonal, a sort-of drive-by conversation.

Voice calls
 Lifewire / Gerardo Alexis Dos Diaz

Even when I’m texting with someone in real-time, and their responses are coming in almost as quickly as answers leave my phone, it’s a too-narrow pipeline to support free-flowing conversation (I don’t care how fast you thumb type). There have been times when I just stop and call that person. But this is too rare.

Bruce Willis
This is an important call. Twentieth Century Fox

You Used to Call Me on the Cellphone

Millions of us are deep into week three of self-isolation and remote work, all in an effort to stem the spread of the deadly Coronavirus (COVID-19). If you’re lucky enough, as I am, to be trapped in a house with three other adults, you’re not necessarily starved for human contact. But according to a 2019 report, 36 million Americans live alone.

Unless they are among those considered “essential workers” like the heroic healthcare workers literally saving lives in overburdened hospitals, these soloists aren’t leaving the house, going to a workplace or office, out to dinner, to the movies, or to a club.

They’re literally being starved of face-to-face interaction and human touch. The latter is important for people’s well-being, but so is verbal communication. Text and a vast library of emojis can communicate a lot of information and emotions, but voice does it more efficiently, responsively, and from less of a remove.

Researchers say that the human voice can communicate 24 distinct emotions, including interest, confusion, fear, sadness, distress, and anger.

Last time we made a lot of calls, our phones looked like this.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

It’s why a phone call is so much more powerful than social media posts, email, and texting. It’s two people exchanging, reacting, and responding to live emotions. Whatever miscommunications occur through text (and there are many) are often non-existent in a phone call. You can hear when someone is upset, happy, or bored.

Call Me on My Cellphone

You don’t need me to tell you that you have a phone in your hand right now or that, maybe, you should actually call your aunt, mom, best friend, or co-worker as soon as you can.

Many of you are already doing it. In an anecdotal poll on Twitter, I asked if people have, in recent weeks, been making more phone calls than usual. 46% said yes. Under 10% said they were making fewer calls.

Obviously, you could also Skype, FaceTime, Duo, or Facebook Portal with them (we Portal with Grandma in my home), but video conferencing, while quite personal, also puts pressure on the call recipient to look marginally presentable and even clean up their space. What if they’re not feeling it? A lot of us are not and would rather not shave, put on makeup or comb our hair for yet another Zoom meeting. Also, phone calls take less bandwidth than video (fewer stutters and dropped frames).

Calls have the benefit of minimal prep and high impact.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that you’ve taken my advice and your is finger poised over the digits on the phone app. What you don’t need is bad service to ruin or prematurely end the call.

Text and a vast library of emojis can communicate a lot of information and emotions, but voice does it more efficiently, responsively, and from less of a remove.

That Hotline Wi-Fi Bling

If you’re at home, you can try Wi-Fi calling. All the major carriers support it and it has the benefit of using your more reliable and higher-bandwidth home Wi-Fi network instead of the sometimes flakey cell service that, if you live near an over-taxed cell tower (or too far from one) can be sub-optimal. More importantly, Wi-Fi calling uses your existing cell number.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon all support it free of charge, but there are a few important steps. 

  • Make sure Wi-Fi is turned on on your phone
  • On the iPhone, enable Wi-Fi Calling (under Cellular in the Settings app)
  • On Android, enable it under Network & Internet (select “Wi-Fi Preferred”)

911 calling is not supported directly over Wi-Fi calls, so you may need to first register an E911 number, which lets emergency responders find you when you dial 911 over the Wi-Fi network. T-Mobile’s setup, for example, walks you through this. Verizon has you enter an address to use for 911 call response.

One side benefit of using Wi-Fi for calls is that you can turn off your cell radio and save a tiny bit of battery power.

So What

Using a powerful handheld computer to make something as antiquated as a voice call may smack of anachronism, but smartphones are still perfectly built to support the activity.

Voice calls are not the solution to what ails us, but with human contact at a premium, doing your best to put flesh, blood, and voice behind what can often be cold, digital conversations can lift spirits a notch or two.

When all this is over, the video conferences, home-cooking, and random acts of silliness might end, but maybe we can keep the calls. I feel like we need them.

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