Why a Classic Phone Call Is Better Than Video Calls or Texting

A science-backed explanation for why you should rely more on your voice and less on your face in our brave new world

Photo: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

When the pandemic hit the U.S., most of us found ourselves socially, and thus emotionally, isolated. Even essential workers, compelled to interact with others face-to-face as part of their jobs, saw their social lives transform. Suddenly, we all had to find new ways to connect with the people whose physical presence we once took for granted, whether it was an office deskmate whose absurd banter kept the workday light, or a friend with whom you had a weekly martini night.

Most of us, unfortunately, landed on Zoom, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts as social tethers. And though at the very beginning, phone calls surged, according to Verizon and other carriers, they’ve since fallen to pre-pandemic levels.

This should be reversed. Video calls are mostly terrible, and though the researchers I talked to for this story didn’t want to go so far as to agree with me that Zoom, in particular, is the devil’s spawn, they did heartily concur that, in many cases, video calls are no more effective at emotionally connecting you with your conversation partner than the good old fashioned phone call — or even just Zoom with the video turned off.

This is because the humble spoken voice is surprisingly emotive, communicating just as much, if not more, than facial expressions (at least over video). And one thing is for sure: Slack, email, text, and other forms of written communication are not bringing you as close to the people in your life as talking to them verbally.

Yet most of us are relying on video chats and texting to talk to our friends and colleagues, despite the downsides. Use of Zoom and other video chat programs has skyrocketed during the pandemic — Zoom’s stock price actually dropped on November 9, when Pfizer announced positive news about a vaccine in progress, suggesting that we may all see each other face to face sooner rather than later. Slack’s growth has also risen sharply this year over last.

But our phone time hasn’t kept pace. Instead, we’re staring slackjawed (haha) at our computer screens, shoulders hunched as we type to colleagues about deliverables or whatever, before forcing ourselves into something resembling presentable for a painful, or at least lackluster, couple hours of Zoom meetings, Zoom happy hours, and Zoom Thanksgivings.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Phone calls exist. The telephone is an incredible invention, really up there when it comes to best inventions of the 19th century and beyond.

At least we’ve all kind of agreed that video calls are a bummer, even if we haven’t actually gotten our lives together enough to actually do anything about them. I wrote about Zoom burnout back in April, when we were only a month into this nightmare, and even then I felt more positively about the technology than I do now.

“To have everyone on the screen in front of you at the same time — it can be very cognitively overloading and taxing.”

Marissa Shuffler, PhD, an associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Clemson University in South Carolina, says part of what’s so exhausting about Zoom and other video platforms is the sheer number of faces you’re confronted with at once, including your own. “We don’t normally look at every single person when we’re in a conversation; you’re going to be kind of looking around to different people and focusing on one person at a time as you’re talking. So to have everyone on the screen in front of you at the same time — it can be very cognitively overloading and taxing,” she says. “It’s that just constant battle to figure out, ‘where am I supposed to be focusing?’ It can get exhausting.”

But, she says, you don’t have to do that when you’re talking on the phone. You don’t have to dart your eyes around a screen, focus pulled from your own face to whoever is speaking’s face to other people who are chewing or yelling at their kids running around in the background, or trying to figure out if you should be looking into the visual representation of someone’s eyes or directly into the camera at the top of your laptop screen. At least on a conference call, you can look at whatever is most comfortable for your eyes — a pretty tree outside, your sleeping dog, or even your notes — and can more easily concentrate on what your colleagues are saying, rather than trying to figure out where to focus your eyes on a busy, lagging screen.

One friend told me she finds herself struggling to look away from Twitter and email when she’s on a video call, since it’s so easily accessible. When she’s on the phone — or even when she can turn off the video and take the call from her Zoom app — she can take a walk or even pace around in her house, which helps her divert her attention from her computer and its many demands to the person she’s talking to. Obviously, you want to keep your focus on the phone call, so playing Call of Duty or cooking an elaborate dinner while you chat may be somewhat distracting. But brainless tasks, like folding laundry, or doing dishes, or walking through the park, can potentially help keep you engaged in the conversation.

Studies show that you’re at least as able to read and emotionally connect with people when you’re talking on the phone as when you’re on a video call or communicating via text, as on Slack or iMessage; some research says you’re even better at it if you’re not distracted by the video representation of someone’s face. Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, recently conducted a study that looked at how textual and verbal communication compared, and how peoples’ expectations of those technologies impacted their experience.

“When it came to their actual experience, which we could of course test because we randomly assigned people to do one of these two things, people formed significantly stronger bonds when interacting over the phone, than sent over email. And there weren’t any differences between how awkward those forms of communication were in reality,” he says. But when his team added video to the mix, they didn’t notice much of a difference at all. “The visual cues didn’t seem to add much beyond what voice-based media added over text-based media, with regards to facilitating these feelings of connection.”

Other studies have found similar results. In a 2017 study out of Yale University, the researcher divided participants into three groups. One group watched and listened to a video of a group of friends talking. A second group only heard the interaction, while the third group saw the video without sound. Those who heard the friends talking, without also seeing them, were better able to deduce how the friends felt than the other two groups. In another experiment, participants had conversations in person, some of them in dark rooms. The participants in the dark rooms had a better time understanding how their conversation partner felt than those in brighter rooms.

“It’s something in the vocal cues giving [people] more insight into the person’s mental state,” says Juliana Schroeder, PhD, an assistant professor at University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, who has studied the impact of voice on workplace evaluations and political conversations. In her 2017 study, which looked at how people evaluate others based on their political beliefs, her team found that people were less denigrating toward those they disagreed with when they heard, rather than read, them explain their positions. Yet seeing the other person didn’t make much of a difference either way.

There’s not much to be gained from adding video when all you need is to hear someone’s voice, and, as the Yale study found, there might even be something to lose.

Part of the reason is that vocal cues are relatively redundant with visual cues, Schroeder says. So while someone rolling their eyes communicates sarcasm, that can come quite clearly through the voice, as well. Another reason, she says, is that our faces are not as emotive as they seem. “We might be used to thinking of movies where actors are showing a lot with their faces, but in day to day life, we’re not seeing very strong cues on people’s faces,” she says. And we’re not necessarily great at reading faces, or at least not as good as we think we are. “There’s a lot of ambiguity in facial information. And I don’t think it’s necessarily as clear as people expect.”

The voice is more capable of communicating the unspoken than, it seems, science previously thought. In other words, the way you speak — what’s known as “paralinguistics” — reveals your emotional state as well as, and possibly better than, your body language. Yet when we talk about the importance of connection during the pandemic, we focus on video calls because we’re accustomed to prioritizing someone’s facial expressions over their tone of voice. This is misguided.

If video calls are exhausting affairs, and in many situations aren’t any better than a phone call, why get on video? Obviously, there are exceptions. Maybe you need to give a PowerPoint presentation, and sharing your screen with others is the best way to do that. And maybe you really do miss looking at a particular person’s face. But there’s not much to be gained from adding video when all you need is to hear someone’s voice, and, as the Yale study found, there might even be something to lose.

So if you’re a boss, consider scheduling that one-on-one over the phone instead of via video, and let people turn off their video during work calls; there’s no need, and they might even be able to focus better if they’re not trying to look 15 people in the eye at once. Call your friend while walking the dog or folding laundry instead of trying to finagle a bunch of people into a Zoom happy hour. You might save yourself some energy, and you’ll get that pile of clean clothes taken care of at the same time.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store