Let's Bring Back Old-Fashioned Phone Calls

Calling all landline lovers.

Remember months ago, when someone—usually your mother or your dentist's office—would call you on the phone and you'd look at the screen with the same expression as a mom whose toddler has just asked her to please take the booger off his index finger? Yep, me too. I love my mother. But I had places to go and things to do, and I believed wizards invented smartphones so that we could text each other and ignore people when we felt like it.

It took exactly one month of quarantine for me to completely change my tune.

Teenager Laying on Floor Talking on Phone in the 1980s
Michael Rayner/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Don't get me wrong. I am very thankful for my cell phone, tablet, and laptop, which have allowed my husband and me to work from home and my children to keep up with school. We are communicating with teachers, grandparents, friends, and coworkers all day long. But that's part of the problem. Because it's so easy to text and everyone is so starved for community, my phone looks like a stock ticker, with messages piling up one over the other, Tetris style, on my home screen. If you are part of more than one large group text, well, the Lord be with you. It's endless.

FaceTime and Zoom are godsends in certain situations. But I find that the joy of seeing my college friends for a virtual cocktail hour is tarnished a bit by how much time I spend looking at my own square and wondering if a more exaggerated side part would make me look less tired. My children spend more time changing the background to outer space or the Golden Gate Bridge than they do talking to their friends. And that's all fine; it really is. I like technology. But I miss real phone calls.

I miss the quiet of just one person's voice in my ear. I miss having to really listen. I miss imagining where my friend is sitting or walking, rather than seeing the backdrop of her laundry room. The bottom line is: There's no mystery anymore. I say this as someone who is a colossal oversharer and thinks mystery is sappy.

There are also no manners. No one under the age of 37 has ever had to call a friend's house, get that friend's dad on the phone, and say, "Hi, Mr. Dogwood, is Delia home?" Once, a few years ago, I watched my son pick up our ringing home phone and hold it to his ear while breathing heavily, wordlessly, into the receiver. Every few seconds, he'd pull it away from his head and look at it, as if he were waiting for a genie to emerge.

Now this is the part of the column where I morph into your grandmother, but so be it. We need to bring back phone etiquette. And to do that, we need to bring back landlines. (Note: While I was discussing this story with my husband, my daughter overheard us and asked, "What's a landline?")

I have a few reasons, starting with safety. My daughter can stay home alone for short periods of time—long enough for me to run to the drugstore or pick up her middle brother from play practice—but isn't yet old enough for her own phone. A landline allows her to call me in an emergency. The other reason is that I hope, when someone (again, my mother or dentist) calls, my kids will learn to say hello properly, make a little small talk, and gracefully end a conversation.

Gwen Hefner, the founder of The Makerista blog and a mother of three in Kansas City, Missouri, installed a landline (attached to a lovely vintage phone) in her house. I saw it on Instagram and reached out to ask why. She said the same thing about having a way for her tween-agers to reach her that's not a smartphone. But she also said her kids think it's fun to call their cousins on the "old-timey" phone. "You have to sit with them at first and teach them to say 'Hello' or 'How are you?' when someone picks up. Talking on the phone is a learned skill. But it will make them stand out someday," she said. I'm hoping she's right.

Whenever my mother comes to visit, she spends 45 minutes to an hour of every day chatting with someone on the phone. She calls people like she's a poll worker moving through names: first Sondra, then Dianne, then Lorraine, and so on. She does text her friends—with emojis, even—but mostly she prefers to talk. I listen to her recounting our errands and what we had for dinner. It's basic stuff. But I love it because I hear about our day through her eyes and I get to hear her laugh. A phone call shakes loose small, shiny pieces of her inner life that I can gather, if I'm being observant. It's been this way since I was little, when the phone was attached to the kitchen wall. I'd like to give the same gift to my kids, for them to see me scrolling less, hear me talking more. (They will be thrilled to know this, I'm sure.) But maybe, if I play my cards right, they can glean some skills on the art of conversation.

So I'm going to try to call a friend now and then, you know, when I have some free time. Maybe in October. I will make the following promises, though. I shall never refer to it as a "phone date," which makes it sound like work. I shall not keep them long, lest they never answer my call again. And if they don't answer, I shall not, under any circumstances, leave a voice mail. Only my dentist does that.

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