Michael Sugerman: Phone call fanaticism

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 3:01pm

My friends know me to be an inconsistent texter at best, and I readily admit that it’s not my forte. The optimal way to reach me is as simple as it is surprisingly intimate: call.

I’ve always loved phone calls. When I was younger, I memorized my home number — along with those of my grandparents and my great-grandmother (Gammy). Every night, I’d sit in our small breakfast nook, pick up the landline and chat with Gammy. It was meaningful time.

I can’t recall what we talked about, but I remember viscerally that it brought me a great deal of joy. I liked hearing her voice and having a real conversation. My Gammy has long since passed, but my impulse to engage with others not directly in my presence via phone has persisted throughout my life.

When I was allowed to get an AOL Instant Messager account, for example, I always insisted on video chatting with friends. It made the interaction even more personal to see whom I was talking with and feel like their whole presence (as opposed to just their voice) was there in the room.

It’s why I love FaceTime so much now. For those of you who watch “Broad City,” FaceTime is an integral part of the show. Its main characters, Abbi and Ilana, FaceTime each other no matter the context. FaceTime feeds their impulse to speak to one another whenever they’re not together (and sometimes, even when they are), whether it’s from the street or a cab or the bathroom.

I asked Nansook Park, a University of Michigan psychology professor who specializes in personality and social contexts, whether or not my tendency toward phone calls and FaceTiming is rooted deeper than individual preference, and she explained that “human beings are social animals” for whom interpersonal communication is as necessary as food and water.

“Even with emoticons, texting is limited in terms of conveying deeper and intimate feelings and subtle nuanced messages,” she wrote in an email. “We can pick up a lot more subtle but significant messages about the other person through different tone of voices and facial expressions. Through body languages, we can communicate … (a) variety of subtle messages that is not always easy to convey in written words.”

The more extensive sensory experience of voice-to-voice and face-to-face communication, Park noted, “can make people feel closer to one another.” Sounds right to me. You can’t “ghost” someone when they’re listening live on the other end of the line. A phone call is an investment: of time, of substance and perhaps of emotion, to some extent. Answering a phone call is as active as making one; it means that both parties actually want to be part of it (for the most part). It’s not a coincidence that I associate phone calls with the strongest relationships in my life.

Phone calls are how I check in with my parents throughout the week, and how I catch up with my grandparents (albeit a little less frequently). My sister and I sometimes FaceTime in silence while we do homework, intermittently exchanging BuzzFeed quizzes and comparing our results when we need a break. It’s about the company, you know?

When I FaceTime non-college buddies, it’s as much about talking as it is about seeing what the other person’s environment is and how they occupy that space. What is their normal? Their routine? What does it look like? Sound like? How is it different from (or the same as) the space in which we interacted in the past? Video chatting is so special because physical separation is bridged by literally bringing another human being into my lived experience (and vice versa).

And when folks aren’t around to pick up the phone (or when I’m not, for that matter), I’m thankful for the documentary nature of voicemail. Some people don’t listen to voicemail, but I treasure it. My mailbox is frequently full — in part out of laziness, sure, but also because I save certain messages and re-listen to them.

Some are for laughs, like this favorite from my sister: “Hello. It’s me. Mom and Dad are being weird again. Okay. Bye.” Others have a deeper meaning. Last January, while I was on the East Coast as part of the Michigan in Washington program, a monumental blizzard hit D.C. one weekend. I still have the voicemail saved from my dad’s father, who called to ask me about it. He died over the summer, and every once in a while, it’s nice to pull up that message and hear his voice.

To be certain, text conversations serve a purpose, and they’re not to be avoided. Some of my funniest and most memorable exchanges have been via text, particularly in places where speaking aloud would be rude, frowned upon or altogether unacceptable. But voice is powerful, and even more so when it’s accompanied by visage. It’s not a coincidence that I ran this column by both my mother and a high school friend via FaceTime before I finished writing it.

Now that I’m graduating, I’m cognizant of the fact that my college friends will be added to the list of people who are spread across parts of the country where I am not. So a heads-up: expect frequent FaceTime calls from this guy.

Michael Sugerman can be reached at mrsugs@umich.edu.