When Lauren Pelissier picked up her phone the other day to call a lifelong friend on the other side of the country, her friend answered by asking what was wrong.
That’s how unusual it is for Pelissier, 45, to call her friends on the phone.
Between working as an event planner, running a non-profit, raising a child and volunteering at a school, the Decatur, Georgia, resident rarely had a block of time to talk uninterrupted before the coronavirus pandemic.
Now that her regular life has come to a halt, that’s no longer the case.
“Picking up the phone and calling people reconnected me to everybody on a level that I had lost through texting,” she said.
As people navigate through the unprecedented global pandemic, the once-disappearing phone call is seeing a resurgence.
When the pandemic began, telecom companies noticed something peculiar: a strain on their networks due to phone calls.
“With Covid happening, suddenly all these phone calls started shooting through the roof that we weren’t expecting,” Chris Sambar, AT&T’s executive vice president of technology operations, said. “[Voice] became the cool app in 2020.”
Call volume and call duration are up
The telephone, at least as it relates to making actual calls, has been on its death bed for a while.
In 2004, more than 90 percent of US households had a landline. By 2019, it had fallen to a little more than 40 percent, according to a 2018 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Usage had declined so much that telecom companies cited it as the reason for taking out copper phone lines in recent years.
Smartphones replaced landlines – and people used them less for phone calls and more for texting.
US smartphone users send and receive five times as many texts as they did phone calls, according to a 2015 report by the former mobile data firm Informate. And most age groups are spending less time talking on the phone, Nielsen reported in 2015.
Then the pandemic hit.
AT&T, which owns CNN, reported that from mid-March to May 1, wireless voice calls peaked at 44% above typical levels and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.
Other telecom services noticed the same thing.
At the height of the pandemic in March, Verizon was reporting an average of 800 million wireless calls each weekday. That’s nearly double the number of calls made on Mother’s Day, typically the busiest call day of the year. This Mother’s Day, calls were up almost 10% compared to the holiday last year.
Both companies also report that call duration is up, meaning that people are staying on the phone longer.
“Call duration went up significantly, and that continues to be up week over week,” said Heidi Hemmer, vice president of network for Verizon. “… People are definitely reaching out.”
The intimacy of phone calls is unmatched
The uptick in phone calls is in line with a broader trend of more increased communication during the pandemic. Telecom companies are also reporting increases in text messaging, while videoconferencing services like Zoom have also seen a surge in usage.
Still, there’s a sense of intimacy felt in phone calls that just can’t be matched by texting, which makes it hard to convey tone or emotion, or video chats, which require more focus and create a hyper-awareness of one’s own appearance, Pelissier, the event planner, said.
“A text is so benign,” she said. “But a Zoom call is so invasive. A phone call is a perfect middle ground.”
For older adults, phone calls are easy and reliable
There are several reasons for the uptick in phone calls.
For those who live in rural areas or older generations who aren’t as technologically savvy, phone calls are the easiest and most reliable form of communication.
That’s why Cecilia Hollenhorst, a second-year medical student at the University of Michigan, decided to set up a weekly group phone call for the elderly patients she volunteers for.
Hollenhorst, 26, had already been participating in an initiative to check up on a number of seniors through weekly phone calls. But she wanted to foster a greater sense of community for them – though many people are socializing and hanging out virtually through Zoom, video calls weren’t feasible for the patients she worked with.
So every Thursday at 3 p.m., she and a group of older adults get together for an hour-long phone conversation. In the absence of family visits and other social contact, it’s a way for those seniors to share struggles, trade advice and chat about anything that’s on their mind.
“Right now, since all of us have this shared experience of staying home, it’s easy to find more things to talk about than normal with a stranger over the phone,” she said.
Younger people are calling more too
It’s not just older generations that are talking on the phone more.
Hollenhorst is somewhat of an anomaly for her age. The 26-year-old is a self-described “phone person,” calling her mom most days and talking to her siblings often as well.
But she says she’s seen a shift even among her friends who weren’t so eager to pick up the phone before. Though previously, the time she spent on the phone was mostly with family, she’s now having more phone calls with friends too.
“It does seem that other people are becoming phone people,” Hollenhorst said.
They’re an extension of people’s desire to connect
Ultimately, the rise of phone calls is an extension of people’s desire for human connection at a time when they’re feeling isolated, said Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association.
“We’re just craving that sense of connection so to me the phone just seems the most obvious way to replace that,” she said.
The rise in phone calls also creates potential for people to emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation of their relationships, she added. It remains to be seen whether phone calls will remain as widespread after life regains some semblance of normalcy – telecom companies are already reporting some declines in voice calls since the pandemic’s peak.
But as people use this time to reflect on what’s important to them, it’s likely that reaching out via phone calls could continue.
Pelissier and her friend ended up chatting for an hour and a half.
After the conversation ended, her friend texted her, saying how nice it was to hear her voice.
Pelissier felt the same way, and plans to make talking on the phone a priority even post-pandemic.
Times like these, she said, have shown just how important those connections are.