It was late on a Thursday when my boss sent me a text message—a first. Panicked, I fired off a quick response. His message back: “That was a test. And you failed!”
The week prior, I’d embarked on a mission for Outside to overhaul my digital habits. On a normal day I text as many as 60 people, a completely impractical number of human beings to thoughtfully engage with. I become distracted and overwhelmed, and I leave people hanging.
So I decided to stop. I was tired of deliberating over texts, keeping a dozen conversations going at once, and failing to nail down plans for days. Instead, for a two-week period, I wouldn’t send a single text, Slack, or DM. I could read them, but I had to call people to respond. I figured that any good message would make a better conversation; on the other hand, if something didn’t merit a call, maybe I didn’t need to bother with it in the first place. Wheat from chaff and all that.
There was many a confused “hello?” A hapless Tinder match texted me about getting coffee; his voice mail box was full when I called, so I couldn’t explain my experiment. Instead, a day later, a text:
“Did you… call me?” I gave up on that one—I’d exhausted whatever gumption I had the first time. Eventually, I became comfortable enough making impromptu calls. In my former life, I avoided dialing old friends until I had enough time to catch up, but with the new rules I learned to be efficient, establishing boundaries—“I only have five minutes.” I experienced genuine joy upon hearing a friend’s voice and in being present while we spoke.
Text messages fragment attention: anyone, at any time, can beep a notification into your consciousness and open a conversational tab. Phone calls don’t lend themselves to half-measures; you either answer or you don’t, and eventually you hang up. But they require more commitment in the moment. Perhaps that’s what makes them feel more rewarding.
At the outset of the second week, I got some tough family news. In its wake, I let dozens of texts go unanswered, powerless to send a “Hey, catch up later,” but too drained to have a conversation. In the end, I realized that a text’s ability to dampen emotion can actually be a blessing.
Research bears this out. At first I presumed psychologists would argue that texting makes us feel distant and disconnected. But a study published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior in 2007—the early days of the smartphone—presented a more nuanced picture. Researchers interviewed 158 subjects and found that those with social anxiety got satisfaction from text messaging, while those who felt lonely preferred making calls. The researchers concluded that texts and calls were equally valuable options for “expressive and intimate contact”—it just depends on your emotional state.
Now I’m less shy about picking up the phone, and less frustrated when my ability to stay on top of digital conversations wanes. I thought that I’d wind up among the “enlightened,” a digital ascetic who prioritized attentiveness above all else. Instead, I’m grateful for the many avenues of connection out there. Sometimes the facelessness of a text can be a balm, just like the connectedness of a call.