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Call declined: Why Gen Z won’t pick up the phone

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Psychology professor at the University of Melbourne, Nick Haslam, says the shift away from phone calls is likely down to control, convenience, and multitasking – three things Gen Z value highly.

“Texts allow people to take charge of the timing of communication rather than having to do it at another person’s bidding,” Haslam says. “You can craft what you say in a more deliberate way than an on-the-spot call. You can choose when to say it, and you can control the length of the exchange, whereas it’s always possible to get trapped on the other end of the line with a chatterbox.”

Texts can be sent from anywhere “whenever inspiration strikes”, regardless of how loud the room you’re standing in is or who may be eavesdropping. It may seem generational, Haslam says, but Gen Z is just at the vanguard of a more general evolution.

“An earlier generation took to email to replace phone calls and in-person interactions in much the same way that texts have replaced calls and conversations in more recent years, and for many of the same reasons of control and convenience.”

Perhaps the phone call will soon fade away not just for Gen Z, but also for older generations as technology shifts towards faster, on-demand messaging.

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Another Australian TikToker, Junpei Zaki, says he doesn’t perceive phone calls as inherently “bad”, they’ve just become a tool for a specific purpose rather than for general conversation.

“I think I make fewer phone calls than I would have made had the internet not become what it is today,” he says. “The internet has made the world more accessible, but time zones still exist. So for me, it’s usually easier to keep an ongoing conversation via text and social media than it is to organise a call at a given time and date.”

The 25-year-old Byron Bay-based content creator is known for his comedic comment videos, and currently has 13.7 million followers on TikTok. Born in Japan, he says his parents often reminded him international calls cost too much, and should therefore be avoided. This stuck with him.

“With FaceTime, it’s essentially free to call anyone in the world for as long as you want.”

Even with the relative freedoms afforded Gen Z through texting, social media, or FaceTime, there is still a certain set of “rules” to follow.

“If I was talking with my family or close friends, I would probably choose FaceTime since a lot of the communication you do with people this close is non-verbal,” Zaki explains. “On the other hand, if I were talking with someone I’m not very close to or talking with someone in a business setting, I’d probably rather text since it’s less invasive.”

Being able to edit and refer to previous texts and emails – or even write a draft and send it later – reduces the amount of pressure usually associated with an on-the-spot call, says Dr Vicki Andonopoulos, an associate lecturer in marketing at the University of Sydney. The thought, time and care one can put into texts or DMs reduces the risk of key details being lost in communication.

This kind of thinking could even eventually change the primary modes of communication at work.

“A lot of workplaces are moving towards greater flexibility and informality, and a decline in formal or scheduled communications may be part of that trend,” says Haslam.

As “forward-thinking” as this may seem, Haslam is hesitant to fully endorse the abandonment of the phone call, fearing a loss of authenticity and engagement.

“The greater spontaneity, relative to an exchange of texts, can help us communicate more honestly and lets us go off script and surprise one another,” he says. “You learn more about a person by interacting with them directly than by reading a string of the texts they tapped out while eating their lunch and watching TikToks.”

Andonopoulos adds that phone calls are valuable practice for handling “urgent, impromptu situations” – particularly for those struggling with social anxiety. If part of the reason Gen Z avoid calls is anxiety, it becomes a “self-perpetuating problem”.

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“Next time you’ve gone for a long period without speaking on the phone, you might notice when you do eventually need to, the words don’t flow as easily, or you haven’t been able to get the message you want across,” Andonopoulos says. “Just like anything, practice makes perfect, and if you haven’t had a chance to practise phone conversations, chances are you won’t feel so great when you do have to make one.”

But for Cockram and Zaki, video apps like FaceTime and Snapchat encourage deeper and easier connections than a “faceless” phone call. And if you’re only looking to quickly arrange something, where little connection is necessary, text will suffice.

Gen Z live by endless sets of codes: don’t try too hard, stand up for what you believe in, and make messaging/FaceTime your default. But what, above all else, is the most important rule followed?

“I do not pick up the phone if I don’t recognise the number,” Zaki says definitively. “All of the important people I know are in my contacts, so if it isn’t one of them calling, chances are it’s spam. If it isn’t, there are plenty of other ways people can get in contact with me. Social media, email, text.”

So, if you’re constantly left with the dial tone of a Gen Z friend, family member or colleague, they likely haven’t saved your number. Oh, and don’t bother leaving a voicemail. They don’t check those either.

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