The Great Phone Hang-Up?

Introverts take heart as the phone fades from fashion.

Posted Oct 11, 2010

So now psychologists and sociologists are scrambling around trying to figure out what it all means. Are there "better" and "worse" ways to communicate? Are these new forms of communication driving us apart or bringing us together?

All the hand-wringing about online communication replacing face-to-face interaction strikes me as a red herring. While some people--one study points to shy people, neurotics, and psychotics--might become overly dependent on CMC, I think most of use it as a replacement not for F2F, but for the dad-blamed telephone.

Raise your hand if the telephone has been a bone of contention between you and a friend or loved one.

Yeah, some of us like it, some of us don't. And people who prefer the telephone to CMC have, for some reason, been awarded the moral high ground. Some feel perfectly justified in scolding the phone-unfriendly, or refuse to meet us halfway by e-mailing as often as they phone. (Here's a question you never hear: Is it possible some people use the telephone to replace F2F?)

These days, as soon as researchers home in on one form of communication, it's halfway to obsolescence. Articles I've come across in the journal of Cyberpsychology & Behavior include a 2006 study done in Singapore, which found that more introverts than extraverts prefer e-mail to handle negative interactions; and a 2008 study that found (among other things) that disagreeable people use mobile phones and instant messaging more than face-to-face. But these studies are already en route to old news. E-mail is considered hopelessly old-fashioned by newfangled people, and I'm sure I wasn't the only reader of Wired magazine who was thrilled to bits by Clive Thompson's August column, "The Phone Call is Dead." (Required reading. Lots of wonderful points.)

Thompson cites a Nielsen report that since a peak in 2007, the number of mobile phone calls being made has been dropping steadily, as has the length of those calls made. Other studies find that more than a fifth of voice messages are never listened to. (Guilty!)

And, he continues, the phone call "deserves to die." It's rude, it puts us on the spot, and it is "emotionally high-bandwidth, which is why it is so weirdly exhausting to be interrupted by one." Today's youngsters, he says, don't make phone calls; they use their smartphones for everything but.

I use the phone for special occasions such as long catch-up chats with far-flung friends. And I understand that as a writer, I'm more comfortable than many people with written communication, so I cut nonwriters slack. But I'm done with any shame for my telephone loathing.

I was pleased to read, again in Cyberpsychology & Behavior, Valerie Priscilla Goby, Ph.D., suggest that people who are not comfortable with CMC (frequently extroverts) might be at a disadvantage, particularly as globalization means more CMC in business. And, she wrote:

Early studies of social activity on the Internet indicated that it represented superficial interaction disconnected from the rest of the person's life, largely because of the absence of the social, physical,and contextual cues that form a fundamental part of interpreting and responding to offline interactions. Later researchers investigating the nature of online relationships questioned this view, arguing that the absence of such cues allowed people more opportunity to formulate responses and portray themselves in the ways they wished and hence contributed to the development of good relationships. It may be that personality is the key to why some Internet users have more deep and satisfying online relationships than others, who are handicapped by the absence of non-verbal and other environmental and non-textual cues.

        Get the big news here? For once, here is someone suggesting that not being comfortable online might actually be a handicap, and that the online way is valid.

Score one for the introvert?

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Goby, V. (2006). Personality and Online/Offline Choices: MBTI Profiles and Favored Communication Modes in a Singapore Study. CyberPsychology & Behavior9(1), 5-13. doi:10.1089/cpb.2006.9.5.

Photo by re-ality via Flickr (Creative Commons).