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Text me before you call

I missed a call from my friend P the other day and didn't think of calling him back even when I got out of the shower.

He would call again or text me if it was urgent, I reasoned as I prepared to head out.

True enough, my phone soon lit up with a WhatsApp message from him: "Call me when you are free."

I rolled my eyes. Why didn't he just say why he was looking for me if he was going to type a message anyway?

I've known P for more than 15 years. While we still meet for lunch occasionally to trade jokes, barbs and gossip, we rely mainly on instant messaging to do the same these days.

"Auntie," he mocked in his usual droll way when I finally called him back. "Phone calls are meant to be answered. If you don't want to receive calls, get a pager."


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

We then spent the next few minutes debating the modern communication dilemma: Should you text before calling someone?

Ringing someone has become a curious two-step process. Instead of dialling a number directly, it is now a common practice to preface the call with a message along the lines of: Can I call you now?

"What a stupid waste of time," griped P, a Gen Xer who is my age. "We used to just pick up the phone and call. What's with this nonsense?"

"This is what you call being polite," I argued. "The person might not want or be free to take your call."

I know because I'm often that person.

There aren't many people whose calls I would accept with no qualms or hesitation these days.

If you are not related to me, have not grabbed at least a coffee with me in the past year or have nothing to do with my work or my kids, chances are, I won't be in a hurry to pick up the phone.

As it is, I rarely answer calls from numbers I don't recognise unless I'm expecting to hear from a service provider or work contact. And I most certainly will ignore calls with an overseas number or no caller ID, having read so much about phone scams.

Most of the time, I miss calls because I am driving or have left my phone to charge (really). But yes, there are times when I'm just not in the mood to engage with someone or decide if I will accede to a request from some guy who's more than an acquaintance but not quite a friend.

For aren't phone calls largely functional these days? We are likely to call only when we want something fast - a service, a favour or to get or give information.

The recreational value of a phone conversation has plunged in today's time-pressed, task- oriented world.

When was the last time you called someone out of the blue just to shoot the breeze?

Such an act demands that you both drop whatever you are doing and engage at the same time, a quaint or even rude concept in this digital age if you aren't a courting couple or checking in with loved ones.

A phone call, once something we made or took without a second thought, is now either fraught with urgency or, as Slate magazine put it in a column last month, a claim of intimacy.

Instead, we have grown used to dictating our own terms for interaction, thanks to e-mail and the plethora of social media apps. You post curated pictures and updates of your life when you want, and I will read and respond at my leisure.

Or not. It's entirely my call.

I shun social media platforms because I find the deluge of often narcissistic information tedious and tiresome.

But I love the same sense of control that instant messaging affords me.

I might not always be able or willing to give the immediate attention that a call demands.

But tell me what you want from me first in a text message and I'd be more likely to respond, and respond faster.

Messaging gives me the space and time to mull over a decision and say exactly what I want, when I want to.

I am then more inclined to follow up with a call to flesh out the details or tie up loose ends.

Call me guarded, antisocial or plain lame, but I am not alone.

From Time to TechCrunch, The Guardian to The New York Times, the media has long declared that the phone call is in its last throes.

The death knell, Slate noted, was sounded in 2007. Nielsen data in the last quarter of that year showed that the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) in the United States exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213).

That was the start of the end. A 2014 survey by taxi app firm Hailo found that sending and reading text messages reigned as the top two uses of mobile phones, followed by reading e-mail and surfing the Web.

Making calls managed only the sixth spot, behind - ha! - setting the alarm clock.

In fact, nearly 40 per cent of the 2,000 smartphone users polled believed they could manage without the call function.

Twilio, a cloud communications platform company which surveyed 6,000 consumers in seven countries (including Singapore), has interesting figures to share, too.

Among other things, its study released last month found that one in 10 of those polled would rather give up sex than texts.

The concept of making phone calls is so alien to millennials that some companies whose survival depends on sales or service calls have had to send them for workshops.

Ms Mary Jane Copps, who runs a phone literacy training consultancy called The Phone Lady, told The Huffington Post: "People visualise a wide range of things that will go wrong during a phone call and they default to a text medium."

There has been similar handwringing over the dying art of a phone conversation and what this portends for the future of interpersonal skills and bonds.

But I don't see it as all bad news.

As folks grow increasingly selective about who they call or whose calls they answer, an unannounced phone call now serves as a litmus test of where you stand with the people in your life.

If they answer it, you can be assured that yours is a relationship that will stand the test of time - and technology.

If not, well, they could be driving. Or charging their phones.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'Text me before you call'. Print Edition | Subscribe