scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

No, really, people are still making phone calls

Lety Toleda spoke on the phone while working in her cafe in Oregon.Andrew Selsky/Associated Press/file

Our phones have changed a lot in recent years, yet our calling habits have stayed strangely constant. Texting, e-mail, video chat — none of it has changed the fact that people still like to talk on the phone.

Americans spend about six minutes a day engaging in honest-to-goodness telephone conversations. That, according to the American Time Use Survey, is essentially the same amount of time they spent on the phone in 2003-2004, when camera phones were introduced, text messaging hadn’t yet taken off, smartphones like the BlackBerry were still specialty devices for business travelers, and many families relied on phones tethered to their kitchen walls by spiral cords.


Even young people still put their smartphones up to their ears for phone conversations. Teenagers actually spend a bit more time talking on the phone than they did in 2003-2004, young twentysomethings a bit less. But there’s little evidence that these so-called digital natives are spurning old-fashioned analog voice calls.

How can this be? Given that 68 percent of American adults now own smartphones — granting them the ability to Skype, text, and access the Internet at all times — why should they consistently spend six to seven minutes every day dialing and chatting?

It can’t simply be a case of old habits dying hard. Teenagers don’t have old habits. And even people who grew up with corded phones (or rotary models) have adjusted their social lives to make room for things like Facebook.

Perhaps one reason phone calls persist is they offer a unique blend of intimacy and concealment. Unlike texting, phone calls offer a richer kind of emotional feedback, including vocal cues that convey subtle changes of tone. That may explain why young people reserve phone time for their closest friends, resorting to texts and social networks for quick connections and looser acquaintances.


And yet, there is some protection. Unlike making a video call, talking on the phone doesn’t spark the same set of anxieties about how we look on the other end of a sometimes-unflattering camera lens.

More generally, there may be something mistaken about this whole either-or way of thinking, when we assume that people choose between text, call, or e-mail.

A Pew Research survey from 2011 found that people who send or receive more than 50 texts a day also take 30 phone calls a day. That’s a good reminder that you can always do both, and that people who thrive on social interactions stay connected in every way they can.

Whatever the reason, the plain fact is that phone calls remain a key form of communication. Despite the frenzied pace of technological change, this is one of those cases where the old cliche happens to be true. The more phones change, the more our calling habits stay the same.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.