It’s good to talk… isn’t it?

10th August 2018
Joe Bush

The irony of this article’s headline is that most millennials (the subject of the story), won’t get the reference. Well, for those that don’t, it was the catchphrase of a 1990s TV ad campaign for British Telecom, starring the late Bob Hoskins.

Well, now that we’ve got that sorted I’d like to pose a question. Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat et al – what do they all have in common? They all enable us to connect? Absolutely. They are now an indispensable part of our social lives? For some people, certainly. However, the connection for me is that none of them require the user to strike up a conversation.

There has never been a generation in history that has been more attached (or shall we say ‘connected’) to technology. Of course that is hardly surprising. Millennials (also known as Generation Y), have never known a world without the internet, and most will not have known a world as an adult without apps. Smartphone addiction is most certainly a recognised condition these days - in fact we recently ran a story highlighting research that has shown what young people would be prepared to sacrifice in order to keep their smartphone – and that included sex, drinking, travel and in some cases the removal of body parts!

In a way we can’t really blame the younger generation if they are constantly glued to their smartphones, but think about it. When was the last time you saw a millennial actually talking on one? Indeed, it is estimated that a quarter of smartphone owners don’t use their device for making calls at all. The more high tech smart devices get, the further away they become from being a phone (which lest we forget, was their original purpose). They now of course double as our banks, our shops, our social network, our newspapers, our stereos, our maps and our TVs.

Of course that’s all great, but the truth is that the more they are being used, the less we are talking. Having lived through the yuppy-infused dawn of the mobile phone, and the ‘I’m not getting one of those’ types (of which I was one), and through to the seismic impact of the internet-connected smartphone, I’ve seen first-hand the demise of the humble phone call – to the point now where some millennials almost have a phobia towards it and get really anxious at the prospect.

The Center for Generational Kinetics has found that millennials prefer to communicate in the following order - texts and texting apps; email; social media; phone calls; and finally in-person interactions – in other words, the less human interaction the better!

Although an editor by trade, I have worked in a sales office, and there was a noticeable difference in tactic between the different generations of sales people. And without doubt, the amount of phone calls made had a direct correlation with the age of the person making them – the younger you were the less phone calls you made.

Those who remember Harry Enfield's Kevin and Perry sketch from the 1990s will remember it as a parody of two teenagers where the main protagonists would communicate with their elders in a series of ill-tempered grunts. This of course was a caricature of teen culture, however, is that what we are heading for? I recently watched a video where a room full of 20-somethings were enjoying a dance at a party - I'm not exaggerating when I say that around 95% of the room were either recording it or broadcasting live over a social media channel - no-one was talking to each other and the only interaction that was going on was between the individual and the screen on their smartphone.

Technology is certainly pushing talking to the periphery of our social and working lives. Yes, advances in technology have made certain things obsolete, letter writing for example (for better or worse), and when was the last time you saw anyone actually use a phone box? But surely talking and conversation shouldn’t be heading the way of the dodo as well?

However, I have my concerns. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a millennial at a total loss as to what to do when they’ve not received a reply to an email – pick up the phone and ring them was my suggestion!

And it’s not just about making calls. It’s reached such a tipping point that an incoming call is now treated with a high degree of suspicion. So rare is it for a millennial to actually receive a phone call that it can only mean one of two things – a cold sales call, scam or PPI, or it’s simply bad news – no one could possibly be phoning to chat anymore. The quizzical stare that some give when that little black box on the corner of the desk starts making a noise, must be similar to the looks given when Alexander Graham Bell first unveiled his invention – “what witchcraft is this?”

It does strike me as sad, as I remember the day when I was allowed to answer the house phone for the first time – quoting the number back to the caller to reassure them that they were in the right place. Quite an event in a young man’s life and something of a rite of passage – a bit like your first beer or making the decision on your own bed time. I do feel sorry for that generation who will not have their first house phone number imprinted on their brains for all eternity (267234 in case you were wondering).

There is an undoubted sterility to social media communication. How many comments or messages have you taken or had taken out of context, and as a result caused confusion, or even an argument? Let’s face it, for all the emoji’s out there, sarcasm, jokes or wit still don’t translate all that well over social media do they?

Social media of course has a sinister side as well. Communicating within that realm is akin to driving a car. When one gets behind the wheel of our little metal bubble, different rules apply and you talk to people in a way you wouldn’t dream of doing face-to-face.

“C’mon mate you can get a bus through there!”, “Oh get a move on D******d”… Ring a bell? Thought so…

Likewise, give someone the façade of an app to screen themselves behind, and they’re all of a sudden capable of being much more callous, spiteful and downright cruel than they’d ever be if they were speaking in person – and the epidemic level of cyber bullying is testimony to that.

The whole culture of social media communication is governed by a different set of rules from regular interaction. If you were having a conversation with someone, and another person walked up and began speaking, you wouldn’t simply cut the first person off and begin a new chat. Yet, how many times have you been talking to someone only for them to answer a text or a Twitter post mid-conversation? The rules of normal social etiquette simply don’t apply.

Without doubt, in a business context, talking on the phone is a skill, and it appears that it’s a skill we are losing. I’ve read some articles where millennials have said things like, in order to make a phone call, they first have to write out a script of what to say, clear their mind of everything else and take a deep breath – forgive me, but is this a phone call or a bungee jump?

It’s difficult to know how we move forward from here, as phone-phobia just seems to be a by-product of the advances we have made in technology. Maybe it’s the next stage in our evolution as a species – like walking upright, or learning how to use wooden tools.

Things are not likely to change anytime soon. We’ve all experienced the automated call centre – press 1 for sales, 2 for reception, 3 to die a slow death whilst listening to Greensleeves etc. And with advances in AI having ushered in technology such as chatbots, Siri and Alexa, there will be even more scenarios where you simply won’t have to talk to a human being anymore. Indeed the last few times I’ve contacted Sky TV, I’ve been invited to be contacted by the service team via text, rather than waiting in their telephone queue to actually talk to someone.

Like any skill that technology has made superfluous, the humble phone conversation may well be confined to the annuals of history or merely practised by a handful of diligent artisans – like chimney sweeps or farriers.

As someone once said, the children are the future, and we must let them lead the way. So the future is in the hands of the generation that is going to shape it – so it really is up to them how things evolve over time. However, it would be a shame if the demise of the phone call was a pre-cursor to a weakening of conversation in general because after all, Bob Hoskins was right, it IS good to talk.

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