The First Minute of Every Phone Call Is Torture Now

But at least you have something to talk about.

An illustration of two phones struggling to connect.
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

During the worst days of the pandemic, we all used Zoom, for better and worse. It had its quirks—You’re muted, Cathy, and so forth—but it offered a necessary human connection. The rise of videochat also amplified the decline in telephony. Already spoiled by robocalls, phone calls receded, save for spammers and moms.

Then we got Zoomed out and became desperate for phone calls again. The telephone is back, and thank goodness. But something seems to have broken in the interim. In my experience, it’s no longer possible to answer the phone successfully.

Instead, this: Hello? … Wait, hello? Can you hear me? Okay, hold on. Ugh. Okay, okay, just a second. I have to get my earphones to connect. Damn it. Okay, never mind, I’ll just hold it up to my head. Hi, ugh, sorry about that.

The reasons are many. Often it’s the wireless earbuds, which won’t reconnect or are connected to the wrong device. Sometimes it’s the connection to the car speakers, via CarPlay or Android Auto. At other times, I answer the call on my watch, but it doesn’t transfer to my earbuds, and there I am, talking at my watch like some dim Dick Tracy. At still others, the call connects but puts itself on speakerphone (why?), ravaging my eardrum. Sometimes just pulling the phone out of a pocket hangs up on the caller. Sometimes the phone doesn’t even ring, but not for lack of service—instead, because I somehow set it to one of Apple’s new, complex “focus” modes, I’ve effectively silenced the ringer. Then a callback is necessary, returning us to the beginning. I’m sure you have your own versions, but the result is the same: The first few minutes of a telephone call are a nightmare.

As I’ve written before, the telephone used to be one of the most reliable communication technologies around. Once wired into homes and businesses, the public switched telephone network facilitated calls with resilience, even in the event of power failure. But when phone networks went digital and then cellular, a combination of factors made calls less reliable: Digital sampling captured voices poorly; environmental noise made calls hard to hear; wireless networks offered a signal in some places but not others. The speakers and earpieces were smaller and designed for looks rather than acoustics, making already tenuous calls even more unintelligible. And so, as digital, mobile telephony overtook copper-wire analog calls, telephony degraded forever.

But all of that sits underneath the current phone-failure malaise. Before a call can even begin, you are now forced to fight with the apparatus that makes the call in the hopes that it will successfully connect you.

I can’t explain why this happens for certain. But feature creep is probably to blame. The technologies we use to interact with telephony have become more popular and more complex. With more available features in software and hardware, more things can go wrong. I’ve taken several different pairs of AirPods to the Apple Store to seek remedy, and the technicians mostly suggest that I reset them—or buy a new pair, because mine are out of warranty. Online, ad-riddled, search-engine-optimized webpages offer folk solutions: disconnect Bluetooth; reconnect Bluetooth; factory-reset the earbuds; reboot the phone; and so on. Like a finger trap, these desires for remedy plunge the user only further into the technological murk and its associated despair.

That’s the bad news, but it has an upside. A new ritual for telephonic greeting has emerged: discoursing about the collapsing infrastructure of telephonic intercourse.

Something has always lurked just past hello’s threshold. How are you? Oh, I’m okay; how about you? Good, good … so, listen, about Gavin’s email. Those kinds of phatic greetings don’t really concern themselves with an interlocutor’s state of being or mind, but simply exercise etiquette and social courtesy. Phatic speech changes over time, too. During the depths of the pandemic, when everyone was very much not fine and asking felt unseemly, inquiring about which brand of vaccine your friends and workmates had received offered a temporary alternative.

Smartphones and their peripherals will continue to proliferate, and with their spread comes a melty languor: Things that once felt simple and good have become complex and insufferable. Gmail, Workday, Teams, two-factor authentication, the necessary interface at the top of the screen that you can’t reach one-handed, and all manner of other moments in ordinary life now seem more brittle—it’s harder to connect intention with execution. In most of those cases, you suffer alone and in private, failing to submit an expense report or thumbs-up a direct message. But on a phone call, you do so in real time and with an audience. There is no hiding the encounter with technological failure.

And so we improvise. Hang on, my earbuds are not connecting, and so forth. The performance of technological error does two things. First, it tames the error. Rather than allowing it to frustrate or undermine the speaker or listener, calling it out helps corral it. You might not be able to get your phone to work the way you’d hoped, but at least you can avoid letting that failure poison the entire conversation. And second, in so doing, the performance opens the door to a new kind of phatic greeting.

For me, it goes like this. Once the earbuds or whatever are finally working—or if they’re not and I’ve given up—I find myself citing the event as a condition of contemporary existence. “Incredible,” I might begin. “I can never get my phone to work anymore.” And then my phone companion usually responds with some version of “Don’t I know it. These things are garbage.” A final interjection and then a segue: “Gah. Anyway …” Then we move on with the purpose of the phone call (such as, say, workshopping an approach to a piece like this one, which, true story).

Technology is a condition. Like the weather, or the economy, or the pandemic, or traffic, or parenting. This should be obvious by now, but somehow it is not. We live amid the threat that technology will destroy democracy, and we live amid the truth that technology has also made life delightful. Underneath those extremes floats a more turbid torpor: the overall constancy of tools that don’t quite work, but to which we must submit so we can occupy the world together. Nothing really works, and nothing is truly broken either, but instead these miraculous machines we invented take on their own lives alongside us. As with rainstorms and traffic, this is an irritating state of affairs, the heavy cogs of an existence bigger than you and me gnashing on with or without us. And yet, that distress is also a comfort, for it offers a common murk in which each of us gropes for a handhold so as not to be consumed.