In a world where intimacy has had to adapt to the presence of technology, speaking on the phone still retains some kind of starry-eyed power. We should relish that.
Today, all of our relationships exist on our mobiles. But, in a world where intimacy has had to adapt to the presence of technology, the simple act of speaking on the phone still retains some kind of starry-eyed power.
There’s a pervasive idea that young people hate speaking on the phone. It’s an ironic stereotype, really – we have our phones in our hands almost every minute of our waking lives, yet it feels ludicrous to actually use them to make calls.
But for a long time, I embodied that stereotype. I steadfastly refused to pick up the phone to unknown numbers; if a friend called me unexpectedly then I’d feel a heavy anxiety thud onto my chest, convinced that the only reason they might be phoning is because someone was hurt or dead. I never listened to my voicemails, simply watched them pile up until, nerves too fraught, I binged on them all at once, missed appointments and tinny ten-second silences from calls not hung up in time. The only person who really called me was my Mum – apt, really. She belonged to another generation, one who – to me – did phone calls.
Recently, that’s changed – at least with one person, someone I’ve allowed myself the (to me slightly perverse) pleasure of long, drawn-out calls with. We speak for hours, my day unfolding in unexpected ways, my schedule ruined, plans rearranged around ongoing conversations. Sometimes, compelled to carry on the conversation, I walk and talk instead of getting the underground; five miles, six miles, more, just to hear about their day.
So unfamiliar am I with using the phone that the act of calling itself starts to feel quasi-erotic, the dial-tone luxurious in the potential it holds. The content is entirely platonic, not sexual; it’s not like we’re heavy breathing down the phone, asking “what are you wearing right now?”, “what would you do if I was there?”. The point, in lots of ways, is that I’m definitively not there. But phone calls are private, unreadable, have a striking immediacy; they’re also strangely incongruous, what with our being in different time zones. One of us is deep into work while the other gets coffee, wakes up; their lunch coincides with my leaving the house to meet friends. It’s a unique kind of discordance; it takes me out of myself.
In lots of ways, these phone calls feel entirely different to a text message or an email: secret, urgent. Nothing is written down, obviously, so everything we say is ephemeral, vanishes as soon as it comes into the world; invisible ink sinking quietly into a page. The screenshots I take of the four-hour-long call times are the only evidence they even happened, the notes in my diary I sometimes write to remind me of what we talked about. I even start to delete other calls from my call log so that their name stays at the top of the list; on the tube, safe without signal, I sit and stare at it, unable to analyse in the way I would a text but stubbornly trying to all the same.
It’s refreshing. It’s also unnerving. We spend so much time trying to divine meaning from our messages; a phone call is more simple. Instant messaging – texting, DMing, WhatsApping, whatever – can happen anywhere; a different kind of intimacy, more casual, less thoughtful. A phone call can’t, isn’t. You have to stop, really focus. You have to be present. Sometimes you have to be vulnerable in a way you don’t in a message. Sometimes you’re taken entirely out of your own life and into a new one, one you share with that other person. It’s there, unmistakably, even if it does only last for hours at a time.
All the problems of intimacy still happen on the phone; it’s not better or more profound, necessarily than a text. The world you create isn’t necessarily real, either: you can still lie, you can still be lied to. And, like a message, this world can be discrete: it doesn’t have to mean anything outside itself. It doesn’t tie you to someone. It doesn’t constitute a promise; it certainly doesn’t constitute a commitment. Creating such a world can also, at times, be a lie itself: a mirage. But it still means something: the act itself still means something. And, sometimes, doesn’t it feel good to be suspended in time?
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