The most universal ambient noises are arguably the trills, pings, whooshes, plops and solemn vibrations from mobile phones. While we manage much of our lives on our phones, it is ironic that making or receiving phone calls is not the primary use of this device for everyone. Many people prefer texting, avoiding audio and video calls as much as possible. For them, a ringing phone can feel intrusive and demanding; induce anxiety over an unplanned conversation or potential bad news; or elicit exhaustion at having to engage in small talk. But there are other reasons for this preference. For many textophiles, it is not just about convenience, but also thoughtful and meaningful interactions.
“I have always found speaking exhausting. There's no fear of phone conversations, but definitely some anxiety. When I am in the mood to talk on the phone, I can take a long call happily. But that's never a first choice,” says Jocelyn Jose (34), a social development professional in Delhi.” She attributes this reticence to her introversion, but it is not limited to the socially reclusive or anxious. Communication overload has pushed many people towards texting, while the pandemic has altered communication preferences.
A growing preference
The preference for texting is common among younger people. A 2021 study by Nielsen and Bobble AI, a conversation media marketing platform, found that fifty percent of its 900 respondents between the ages of 18 and 40 years, across five Indian metro and six non-metro cities, preferred texting over audio and video calls.
The small talk necessary to grease a verbal conversation is often tiresome and with the number of people we interact with daily in our personal and professional lives, a stream of phone conversations is time-consuming and distracting. “It is often faster and easier to text. You can do it anywhere and anytime, but speaking is difficult if you’re busy or not in a conducive environment,” says Jose.
Writing also allows for careful thought and expression. “Talking has always drained me, while words invigorated me. I think I am funnier in text and it makes me feel smarter,” says Manish Bhatt (47), an advertising professional in Delhi. “Phone and in-person communications feel difficult with awkward silences and ‘aur bata’ conversations dragging on after they should have ended.” Jose articulates her thoughts better in writing. “I often hold back because I'm unable to express myself fully verbally. In writing, I'm more expressive and honest,” she says.
Many people experience fear and anxiety with phone conversations. The pressure to make small talk or the discomfort of being judged on your tone or your words are some of their reasons. A 2019 survey of U.K. office workers showed that 76% of millennials and 40% of baby boomers experience anxiety when the phone rings, leading to 61% of the surveyed millennials avoiding calls.
“I am terrified of phone conversations. People who call needlessly, when they could have texted, irritate me. People I feel comfortable with, get a free pass. But even then, texts are better,” says Bhatt. “It helps me when people text first, so I can gather up the courage for a phone call.”
Telephobia, the fear or avoidance of phone conversations, is common in social anxiety disorder, but is not restricted to it. A communication fatigue has crept into our hyper connected world, urging many towards texting, which feels less intrusive and demanding.
“I am considered an extrovert and can chat nineteen-to-a-dozen. But over the last few years I have pulled back from calling people,” says Rasika Narain (43). The Gurugram-based artist feels the pandemic has played a large role in this shift. “Conversations usually feel tiresome as more people are focused on discussing their problems than exchanging positive anecdotes. Texting gets the job done without too much effort.” When her husband and she had CoVid-19 last year, Narain was touched, but overwhelmed, with the dozens of messages and calls of concern to which she responded daily along with virtual doctor consultations. “It created a communication burnout for me.”
Hyderabad-based lawyer Chhandita Chakravarty (42) displays this weariness as well. “I was a loner from earlier on, but in this pandemic talking to people physically tires me. Short text conversations are all I can muster energy for,” she says. “I avoid talking not because I am timid, but meaningless banter is tedious. When I do call people occasionally, I can have a good conversation.”
Is it unhealthy to feel this reticence? “It depends on the context of the situation,” says Lalpeki Ralte, a Bengaluru-based psychologist and therapist. “People may prefer text communication as they can be more thoughtful and take time to compose a well thought out message. During the pandemic it could have helped people connect because of minimal social interactions. But there are those with social anxiety or a fear of speaking who resort to texting as well.” Ralte recommends an assessment of the severity of anxiety if this avoidance becomes inhibitive, affecting work or social relationships. “The best way to deal with this is to find coping mechanisms or alternative ways to reduce the anxiety through counselling or psychotherapy.”
Text messages can be perceived as casual, lazy and emotionless as compared to in-person or phone conversations. Textophiles disagree. “While you can gauge emotions better in phone conversations, written communication is also a great way to express yourself clearly and with emotion. It takes more effort to write so it doesn’t qualify as lazy to me,” says Jose.
Bhatt is emphatic in his disagreement. “Text conversations can be more profound than talking, which is often ninety percent air and saying stuff to fill the silence.”
Being more mindful
But even die-hard texters acknowledge the need for phone conversations at certain times. Narain enjoys group video calls with friends which are fun and relieving in this solitary pandemic world. Jose resorts to phone calls when she needs quick or urgent responses or when there is some personal news she really wants to hear.
It's always thoughtful to keep the other person’s preference in mind when initiating communication. “I’d gladly call people I value who are not text-friendly. I call my dad and other older people, and sometimes old friends, because you can’t text out of the blue, but you can call. Text is ok for people you are regularly in touch with,” says Bhatt.
Regardless of communication preferences, a text is often appreciated, unless urgent, to check if the person is free or in the mood to speak. We often forget that demanding immediate attention can be insensitive, whether on the phone or text, just because people are always accessible. “Social niceties compel us to talk, but you shouldn’t have to if you don’t want to,” says Chakravarty.