Pick Up The Phone

Reply All co-host PJ Vogt intoned on a recent episode, “Ugh. Talking on the phone is the worst!” I forget what the episode was about, but I remember the resonance I felt with the sentiment. Talking on the phone. Ugh. Especially in light of the alternatives–texting and emailing–, seriously, a phone call? Ugh.

I knew there was something awry with that resonance at the time, and Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, is helping me to name what that was. The almost-completely-established preference for texting over phone calls (to say nothing of face-to-face conversations) is changing how we talk to one another, and in troubling ways, especially for those of us whose work is to cultivate community, particularly among the young.

Turkle documents case upon case of people in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s who quite literally fear talking on the phone. A college student describes phone calls as, “The absolute worst . . . I instantly become this awkward person. On the phone–I have to have these little scripts in front of me.”

The phone is a synchronous medium. It is not, like its digital successors, biased outside of time (I’m totally cribbing from Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed here). Digital media are asynchronous, so they give us the advantage of conversing without the pressure of responding and reacting in real time. We can compose and edit our contributions to the conversation. It feels safer.

Gone are the days, then, of teenagers hijacking the family telephone for hours on end with inane conversation, like I did. Teenagers and young adults today view the telephone as a terrifying relic that wants nothing more than to expose their un-edited vulnerabilities in real time. So they’re simply not using it.

That’s a problem.

Youth ministry is a vehicle for celebrating the un-edited and the vulnerable in the service of transformative human community. Youth groups and youth retreats should intentionally teach face-to-face conversation. Youth leaders should force teenagers to converse with them over the phone and eschew the text message. Our mission of mediating the acceptance and love of God to adolescents simply can’t be accomplished with emojis; it requires a voice. It requires those awkward silences. It requires the misspoken word and the grace that follows.

Seriously. Pick up the phone.