It’s been nice to spend a little time catching up with some of the new research supporting the thesis behind my (somewhat delayed) 2015 book You Are What You Don’t.
The thesis of the book is simple:
It’s pretty obvious that we are what we do. It’s less obvious, but no less formative, that we are also what we don’t.
Not only that, but what if what you don’t do is exactly what you should be doing?
Essentially, You Are What You Don’t sends me off on diverse adventures trying to not do the things that I normally do and trying to do the things that I unavoidably do in a manner completely opposite.
(It’s not a massive surprise that I so much enjoyed writing about paradoxes a couple of weeks ago.)
For example: it would, as we’ve all discovered in the years since, be crushingly dull to not leave the house every day — but there’s no reason that we have to walk.
So, for one day, back in 2015, I didn’t walk. I ran, I danced, I jumped, I skipped, I twisted my ankle, I crawled to A&E and I learned a lot. Particularly about crutches.
The point of the book is that we should learn to question our habits and at least try living without them: sometimes to discover an unexpected better life and sometimes just to return to normality, with gratitude.
One of the most instructive chapters of the book was called ‘No Mobile Phone’. This experiment was run in the halcyon days before I owned a smartphone, but I was no less addicted to those old school beeps and vibrations.
In the month before I ditched my Nokia — back in 2015, remember — I had sent 419 text messages. As I observed at the time:
that’s a ridiculous 13 per day, which makes me look like either a man in demand or a man desperate for attention. I have a horrible suspicion it’s not the former.
Fast forward seven years and I suspect I would be aghast at the number of messages I send on my smartphone in a month.
Actually, as a confirmed data-holic, I wouldn’t be aghast, I’d be fascinated. And then aghast.
Perhaps that’s why Android, Signal and Whatsapp make it either completely or virtually impossible to count the precise number of messages sent from your phone.
(Do you know how? Message me.)
Back in 2015, I wrote about the powerful effects of ‘social gravity’. I was concerned then with the pressure building on all citizens to buy a smartphone:
If we don’t go with the tilt, with the tendency for everyone to have smartphones, then we must be prepared to work ever harder against the steepening slant.
More than one of my freelancing friends finds that they need a smartphone in order to get emails on the go: if they don’t reply immediately to that job offer, then someone else will.
Today we can see the effects of social gravity in the way that we use our phones to communicate with each other.
In fact, to call this communicative tool a ‘phone’ is now almost a misnomer. ‘Phone’ is ancient Greek for ‘voice’ but today, compared to text messaging, we rarely use our ‘phones’ to transmit our voices.
According to a 2018 study, the average Whatsapp user sends or receives a total of 145 messages per day. That’s more than ten times my ‘ridiculous’ 13 text messages per day back in 2015.
In contrast, between 2012 and 2019, the total time that people in the UK spent on phone calls dropped by 15 percent, from about 10 minutes per person per day to 8 minutes (given that the population also increased slightly).*
As smartphone use has increased, so too has our use of ‘frictionless’ messaging apps like Whatsapp. The ensuing pressure of social gravity has squeezed out voice phone calls.
The question is: are we better off without voice communication or is this the worst thing ever?
It’ll come as no particular surprise that a 2020 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that voice communication, even without the visual cues of face-to-face contact or video, is integral to social bonding.
It follows that the researchers found that phone calls make us feel more bonded with others than text-based communication like email or messaging.
Voices make us feel good. Intuitively, we know this.
But that’s not why we make fewer phone calls today compared to 2012. We make fewer phone calls because phone conversations, even with friends, are faffy and awkward.
And that’s where the research gets more interesting.
Before the event, the 200 study participants expected that a phone call, whether with an old friend or a stranger, would make them feel more socially awkward than connecting by email or text.
But when asked how the call went afterwards, participants reported no extra awkwardness from the live, unscripted nature of the conversation.
In fact, the phone call was not only a more positive interaction than the text-based communication, but it was also no extra faff. The researchers found that a simple phone call took no longer than reading and responding to the same scenarios over email.
In conclusion: we overestimate how ‘convenient’ text communication is and we underestimate how good a proper voice call will make us feel.
* The kicker is that, after seven consecutive years of falling call minutes, 2020 saw a huge leap in our use of phones for voice communication. Lockdown helped us rediscover the dial tone.
Are you emboldened now to hit CALL instead of SEND? Do you find yourself more often swiping right to answer instead of left to reject? Have you learned to love again the sound of the human voice?
Please don’t bother answering by email — call me instead!