Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why I Think Spontaneous Phone Calls Are Rude

In response to this article in the Freakonomics blog about 1/3 of people preferring texting to talking, I posted the following comment.  I thought it useful for others to understand why I am in that texting group.

Talking on the telephone has two inherent problems.  The first is that there is a certain etiquette that requires extra unnecessary information such as a greeting, "How are you doing" and a closing, "Talk to you later, goodbye" which increases the cost of the communication.  But much worse, the medium is synchronous.  In order to place a call, you have to dial the number, and wait for the other person to connect (or else possibly wait for an extensive voicemail greeting).  The recipient of the call is completely interrupted from whatever task he/she was doing, which may be annoying and will cause mental context switch which comes with some cost.

Texting is light-weight asynchronous operation. The interruption is momentary (a brief sound or a buzz) and the recipient can choose to immediately respond or finish up a thought or conversation with somebody else before responding.  The recipient can glance down at the phone in the middle of a meeting and understand the context of the message and is given the opportunity to choose if this new interruption is worth switching to or not.

Some younger people (including me, at 31) feel like placing an unplanned phone call to somebody is extremely rude because it implies that whatever the caller wants to talk about is more important than whatever the recipient was already doing.  The caller interrupts the recipient saying, "stop everything and listen to me for a minute or 30".  Indeed, when somebody calls me without warning while I am focusing on something important (such as an emergency at work), I feel anxiety about the potential wasted time talking about something less immediately important.  Many friends prefer I start a conversation via text (email, sms, IM) before elevating that conversation to a voice call to increase the bandwidth of the communication once both parties have agreed that the need exists.

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