Why phones are toxic

I don’t make a secret of my dislike of phones. For all of my first year in college I didn’t have a cell phone and even now I use my phone as little as I can. When I do use it, it’s generally more for texting than for actually making calls. Back in high school having a phone was something of a status symbol. They were the hip new gadgets and all the cool kids had one. I didn’t get my first one till almost my senior year and even then I can’t say I really used it. My real dislike for phones only came in college after getting used to not having them and developing a lifestyle where most communication was based on email, IM and face-to-face meetings (one advantage of living on a small, residential campus). I’m going to try to logically support my dislike of phones without getting emotional

Phones are designed for interruption

Phones are designed from the ground up for interruption. It all starts with a noisy ringer that will tear your mind away from whatever it is that you’re doing. That’s followed by answering the phone and dealing with whatever it is the other person is talking, which more often than not has nothing to do with whatever else you were dealing with at the moment. Even if you have a caller ID and can choose not to pick up, you still have to disconnect from the task at hand and think about who the person, why they might be calling and make the decision to pick up or not. Your concentration is practically guaranteed to be broken.

Data transfer rates are low

This might sound heartless and inhuman, but in most circumstances I’d much rather read something than listen to someone say. Given a piece of text, most people can skim over it pretty quickly and grasp the main points. You can then reread it (or just the important parts at a slower rate). But if you’re listening to someone else talk, you’re limited by their speed. If they speak too fast you can’t grasp what they’re saying and if they’re too slow it takes forever to get to the point. Not to mention the punctuations of “umm..” and “err…” that creep in. Plus actually having to write out something often forces people to rethink what it is they want to say and make it more concise.

Only one dimension

Voice communications and telephones in particular are inherently linear. You can’t skip ahead or backward when someone is talking. Most voicemail systems suck and are a horrendously bad way to see who called you or left a message. Unlike email or IM you can’t quickly glance over things to make a decision to act or put off till later. You actually have to sit down and listen to every single darn message. This isn’t really all telephone’s fault: sound is a one-dimensional medium, at least human perception of it is. People can’t listen to more than one voice at a time and make sense of it.

You have to act RIGHT NOW

I love text-based communication because it gives you a chance to think things through before actually communicating. Even if it’s just a quick email reply you at least have a few seconds to think things through before you hit “send”. But in a telephone conversation you have to act right now. If you forget to say something, you can’t just add it in a second later. You have to interrupt the other person or wait for them and remember what you wanted to say. IM also has some of these difficulties, but each party can scan the text stream on their own so you can send your message knowing that the other person will read in their time and adjust their messages accordingly.

It’s not the same as a face-to-face

Talking to a person over the phone is really not the same as talking face to face. Human communication involves a large number of non-verbal queues that get dropped when you’re limited to just voice. In contrast, written communication has developed it’s own style. It’s meant to be absorbed in a different manner using more brain power to imagine the context and surroundings of the text. If something is important enough that you need someones undivided attention: schedule a face-to-face meeting. If that’s not possible and a phone conversation is inevitable, then you make sure you set aside a particular time and stick to it.

The Disclaimer

As you might have noticed, a lot of my complaints aren’t about verbal communication, it’s about the current incarnation of the telephone. It’s possible to use a phone in a manner that mitigates these issues to a large extent. Jason Fried of 37signals has specific weekly office hours where people can call in and ask him anything they want. This eliminates the uncertainty and interrupting potential of phones. Google Voice offers a really nice modern voicemail system. even if the text transcription is somewhat buggy, at least you know who called and when and don’t have to listen through the whole queue. I would personally like things if I could plug my phone line into my computer and then just interface through some good software. Till such a day comes (or VoIP rules the world) I’ll stick to Google Voice.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

2 thoughts on “Why phones are toxic”

  1. Some good points here, though your arguments about data transfer rates and linear communication apply to face-to-face communication as well. The big advantage of phone vs. written text is that inflection communicates more personally and effectively, heading off misunderstandings. Until recently I wrote and edited for a living, but still found others at times were not receiving my tone in emails as I intended.

  2. I think IM is a good way of camouflaging one’s true intent in the midst of flowery language and thus is very deceptive.It messes up the very essence of Information sharing,the fundamentals of communication and gives it a whole new clandestine feel.Although your argument is pretty logical,I can see a sense of you being bias before putting forth your argument.Also,voice communication adds a certain and definite personal touch to communication thus easing up on either parties bitterness(if present) and goes about to normalize the situation.So,I would say IM’s and emails are just one of the fields of communicating,but a little too formal and heartless;whereas voice communication is upfront personal and direct.

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