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How three great phone calls reminded me that it’s not just the latest apps that make for great social networking.

Recently I had three great phone calls. They reminded me of how nice it is to just sit and talk on the phone. Call it the “old fashioned app,” but in an era of texts and tweets, the phone still delivers a wonderful experience. A call is like receiving a handwritten note in the mail. The phone also presents a modern challenge: leaving it up to us, not technology, to make the conversation smart.

A networking app for the ages.

It’s ironic, considering how awful wireless connections are nowadays, that we enjoy phone calls at all. (I prefer my desk phone, with its deep, resonant sound reminiscent of the mustard-yellow kitchen phone of my youth.) Perhaps the phone persists because it sends more than words. As digital media flattens context into the smallest number of characters or seconds, it’s the ineffable quality of a voice conversation that the phone keeps from being lost.

 

Oh, that’s silly, you might think. You could have emailed and saved time. It’s true. I reply to hundreds of emails every day, shooting text and bullet points with one thumb on my mobile. But it’s primarily because email only needs half my attention that I’m glad I didn’t digitize those conversations. Something important – an energy of dialogue – would have been lost.

On the first call, four people and I wrestled with an agenda problem. We could have each sent our versions by email, and one of us reconciled them. But what happened on the call went beyond mere amalgamation. We created magic. We were bouncing off each other’s ideas. We riffed, like a jazz band, in real time. The discussion moved, ebbed, flowed, and was exhilarating. With email we would have been communicating, it would have been clinical; another task in our overloaded inboxes. On the phone, we were creating. Our outcome wasn’t just correct; it was good work. 

The second call was from an old friend, seeking input on big business issues. It was a high-stakes conversation, lots of nuances and significant risk. And though I wasn’t being paid for my thoughts, the call itself was its own reward. The opportunity to chew on a tough problem, offer my experience and help a valued friend was exhilarating. I didn’t need the solution; but I needed to be part of it. Had she merely texted me, it would have been stilted; I’d have been distracted by any random notification. On the phone, I had to stay focused, connected, listening, relating. Without an app in the middle, the whiteboard was only in our minds. And yet, I’m confident I remember the outcomes better than had the discussion been saved online.

At one point I had to stop to catch my breath: I’d been pacing my office with the phone to my ear.

After we hung up, I started to think how much potential of the telephone we’ve forgotten. In the rush to digitize human engagement, might we have overlooked what makes a conversation valuable? I thought of the challenges of communications, in a universe of clipped text: more is misunderstood than understood. In some ways, it’s also darker because it’s flatter. We’re keyboards away, rather than in each other’s ear.

Now, don’t worry: I run down my smartphone like the rest of us. But lately I’ve been sensing something missing, craving something more, from my time spent in digital engagement. Apparently, I’m not alone, either. Even the mythologized digital-first millennials say phone calls are important: more millennials than older generations make five calls a day, and 4 times as many make calls than take selfies (Forbes). Surprisingly, two-thirds say they’d rather contact a business by phone than social media. On a larger scale, nearly 72% of all generations say they expect relationships to be “less authentic” in the future due to technology (CNBC). Perhaps it’s time to rethink the how and where of the digitally-driven-discussion.

There’s more to a good conversation than speed and convenience.

Consider the third call. It was simply social. No problems, no business. Just catching up: some commiserating, bragging, joking and reconnecting. Easy and natural in the analog. Might it have been cooler by digital video? Turn on a camera and most of us become selfie-conscious in a way that wobbles the conversation. The phone doesn’t notice if the light is bad or our hair uncombed. My full analog attention is available to the person on the other end.

Because of those three calls last week, I dug out my desk phone. After years of flimsy mobile headsets, the receiver felt solid on my shoulder. It was strange to hear a dial tone when I picked up a line, but it was crystal clear. The first time it rang, I smiled at the simple, clean tones. Upon my answering, the caller said, “Oh! I didn’t expect to get you. I thought I’d get your voice mail.”

“I’m glad you called,” I said.

“You sound so clear,” she replied. “We must have a great connection.”

“Yes. Yes we do,” I said into the telephone.

 

– M

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