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By Claude Fischer, professor of sociology

Telephone booths are disappearing and, some contend, so are phone calls, along with the senior citizens who seem to be the only ones still making them. Certainly, a lot of practical business and just checking in is now done by text rather than by call. But these funereal descriptions of phoning overlook one lasting feature of the call: It’s a way people can have heart-to-hearts when they cannot be face to face.

In the early days of the telephone, in the late 19th century, its major uses were not unlike major uses of email and texting today: business matters, practical arrangements, emergencies, and the like. But then Americans, particularly American women, started increasingly using the telephone for a range of social purposes–to stay connected to family, to sustain friendships.

Founders of the telephone industry were dismayed by social uses of the telephone, what one executive angrily called “idle gossip.” But by the 1920s, new leadership had realized that customers calling personal intimates was not an annoyance, but a profit center. In its ads, the industry increasingly suggested that the telephone call was ideal for getting family news, giving friends holiday greetings, and just to chat. Falling costs for long-distance calls increased popular use of the technology for such personal matters.

Then came the internet.

Founders of the telephone industry were dismayed by social uses of the telephone, what one executive angrily called “idle gossip.”

The number of landline phones in America peaked at about 193 million around 2000, according to the World Bank, when Americans already had nearly 110 million mobile phone subscriptions. Landline connections have now dropped to under 120 million, while mobile phone accounts have soared to 396 million (which, yes, is greater than the actual number of Americans). And we all know that the mobile “phone” is used for far more than making phone calls.

Americans use their smartphones for many practical purposes such as looking up health symptoms and traffic guidance, according to the Pew Research Center for Internet & Technology. And, almost everyone uses it for texting, although about 90 percent of people actually do call, too. By volume, Americans send about five times as many texts as the number of calls they make and spend about five times as many minutes per day texting as calling, according to Infomate, a mobile data company.

Now, about a century on after Americans commandeered the old phone for personal chit-chat, what is left for the phone call? Personal chit-chat — very personal chit-chat. It would appear, from some research that we have been doing at Berkeley, that the phone has found a special niche as the preferred media for intimacy.

It would appear, from some research that we have been doing at Berkeley, that the phone has found a special niche as the preferred media for intimacy.

In a several-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health, we have followed about 1000 residents of the San Francisco Bay Area — about half in their 20s and about half in their 50s and 60s — learning about their personal networks, including about how they stayed in touch with people who matter to them.

One big difference between the two cohorts: Landlines. Almost none of the 20-somethings used landlines as a major way to stay in touch with family or friends, while about a fourth of the older respondents still did. Another big difference: Email. Most older respondents used email as a main way of staying in touch, while fewer than a quarter of the younger people did.

But when it comes to phone calls, over 80 percent of both age groups report using calls, whether by cell or by landline, as a main way they stayed in touch with family. The groups do differ when it comes to staying in touch with friends: About 80 percent of the mature adults relied on phone calls, but just under half of the young adults did. (More relied on texting and, as national data also show, much more than the older respondents, on social media.) Nonetheless, both old and young still do call sometimes.

We can appreciate why even young people still make phone calls when we consider who is contacted often and how.

In another part of our study, we asked respondents how often they were in contact, and in what ways, with specific people in their social lives. The people whom respondents saw in person were basically people who were nearby, into whom they easily ran. But the people with whom respondents talked often on the phone were especially likely to be intimates — parents, adult children, people in whom they confided, people to whom they felt “close.” These findings are consistent with other studies showing that intimacy is more common in personal phone calls than in personal emails or even in face-to-face meetings.

When access to the telephone spread, more people were able to more quickly, easily and cheaply converse with those whom they cared about — annoying interruptions by unwanted callers notwithstanding. As access to the internet has spread, that capacity to converse has multiplied in method and volume, the dark side of the internet notwithstanding.

Still, there appears to be something still special about voice-to-voice that makes people turn to the phone call when it matters most.