Call me, maybe: The case for why phone calls are better than text messages


How did you read that? In your head, was it sarcastic? Monotone? Excited? If you got that as a text message, how would you feel? Put-off? Ambivalent? Would you laugh?

Obviously, that depends on the context of the text conversation: whether it was serious or playful, if the two people knew each other well enough to understand what it was supposed to mean. So how do you really know if you’re correctly interpreting someone’s message? And how might it have sounded if it was said verbally instead of digitally?

Long gone are the days when phone communication was just two people sitting on a bed talking over a rotary phone and twirling the chord between their fingers. The smartphones we carry around in our pockets today are meant for efficiency and more effective communication, and we now have a seemingly endless amount of text-based messaging platforms. But so much time and energy still goes into sending a text, and meanings constantly get misconstrued on the journey from our brains to our fingertips.

Texting can often be a stopgap for difficult conversations that we’re not ready to have in-person or over the phone. Text-message breakups still happen, and most people at some point in their lives have sent or received a long, emotional paragraph of text from someone avoiding a verbal confrontation.

“If you’re going to be sharing an empathetic message or some kind of emotional message, then I think it’s better to talk voice-to-voice than to text, so that there is no misinterpretation where somebody seems flippant or cold or unsympathetic or afraid or too busy to talk to you about something that’s important,” said Jacqueline Lambiase, the chair of strategic communication at Texas Christian University.

Arguably, typing out and editing a difficult or long text can help the sender process their emotions and think more about what they want to tell the other person before they say it. But sometimes, the simple act of sending a text can itself give off a particular message.

“In some ways people might not want to talk about it and they might find it easier to text, but I also see the downside in that as well. I’ve found that, even though it’s harder to talk about in-person or over the phone, it’s preferable to show some respect to the person that you’re sharing that news with,” Lambiase said.

When speaking, a person can consciously and subconsciously use a whole range of nonverbal communication elements to get their point across, including vocal pitch, volume and frequency.

“Calling can be tricky because I feel like no one answers their phone,” said DePaul senior Mary Sowa. “But at the same time it’s easier because you can get cadence and hear the intention a lot (more) rather than a text, where I might send something that can be taken as negative when it’s not.”

When having an audible conversation, there is also a sense of sincerity because the speaker is not usually thinking about their exact tone – it just kind of happens. And while face-to-face exchanges can provide opportunities for an even greater amount of nonverbal communication, a simple phone call can reach almost anyone in any place at any time without the added worry of having to visually present yourself in a specific way (I have most of my best interviews in my pajamas).

Setting up interviews for this story was interesting because I found myself texting people to arrange a call for a specific time. The difference was that the  initial text messages were unlikely to be misinterpreted since it was a straightforward and simple request, and they allowed the other people to respond at their own convenience since I didn’t need an immediate answer. For the more important conversations, however, I felt the need to minimize any potential miscommunication – a protocol I have found to be significantly more effective through verbal communication.

Type and text can be a very powerful form of communication, however. As technology has developed, we’ve had to create a certain visual way of communicating through text. “I luv u!” means something different from “ily” which means something different from “I love you.” There are 2,666 different emojis anyone with a phone can use to visually aid with text meanings. If we want to yell, WE TYPE IN ALL CAPS, and we use punctuation to show……….suspense. Hesitancy???? ~subliminal meanings~ !!!!!Emphasis!!!!! but every single time we type out a word or phrase, we have to ACTIVELY think about the “message” we are trying to convey and make sure that comes through since soooooo many layers of nonverbal communication are *totally* lost. And that can take a lot of time and effort.

Texting or messaging does have its place, though. You can’t send a bitmoji through a phone call or verbally describe a meme. Plus, being able to send short, non-committal messages can help us maintain several relationships at once.

“Text messaging is a nice way to fit in what we call interstices,” said Bree McEwan, a communications professor and coordinator for the new communication and technology major at DePaul. She specializes in looking at the ways in which interpersonal communication and communication technology work together.

McEwan explained that interstices “are the little pieces of your day where you wouldn’t normally have time for communication with someone.” This could be  in an elevator or on the train platform or even when you’re waiting for your friend to get out of the bathroom.

“We have these little interstices, and it’s enough time to check in on your messages and send a few messages out, but it isn’t enough time to engage in a long phone call,” McEwan said. “Text messaging allows us to use these little pieces of our day to maintain a variety of relationships.”

Phone calls seamlessly blend adequate nonverbal communication factors with convenience in many situations. You can make short phone calls to instantly confirm plans or longer calls for more emotional conversations. It’s quicker to correct a misinterpretation in a spoken conversation rather than in a text, and a phone call is not nearly as intimidating or hard to coordinate as meeting someone face-to-face. And while both calls and text messages are useful forms of communication for different purposes, phone calls are just generally better. Obviously.