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Don't like to call? You're not alone

One hundred and thirty-five years after Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call, the art of chatting on the phone has been dialed down. NBC's Jamie Gangel reports.

Phone calls, says 16-year-old Audrey, can be dangerous. Things can get "out of control." Like many teens, and a growing number of adults, she prefers text-messaging, instant messaging, or Facebook as ways to communicate rather than using the phone.

With texting, "you get your main points off; you can really control when you want the conversation to start and end. You say 'Got to go, bye.' "
 
Audrey is one of 300 teens, and 150 adults, interviewed by MIT professor Sherry Turkle for her book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other." Audrey’s featured in a chapter appropriately named, "No need to call.”"

"Young people become anxious about such things as 'How will I end a conversation?' and 'What if my friend has had a really hard time and I don't know how to help?' " Turkle said in an interview."In the past, they dealt with such anxieties. Now, texting and messaging provide a way to bypass these anxieties."

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It’s not just teens who loathe making a phone call; it’s a growing number of adults who will  "go to great lengths to avoid a telephone conversation," she said. "Adults say that they are so pressed with the amount of messages they have at work that they don't have time for the luxury of  'real time' conversation."

A decade or so ago, e-mail was a common way to avoid a phone call. It’s still heavily used, but text messaging has soared since late 2001 in the United States. That’s when wireless service providers "began to connect their networks for text messaging, allowing subscribers on different networks to exchange text messages," according to the Common Short Code Administration, part of the CTIA wireless trade group in the U.S.

Now, there are more than 7 billion text messages sent every month in the U.S., the organization says.

One of the main reasons people give for "turning away" from voice is the way "text provides feelings of control and essentially a place to hide," says Turkle.

Phone calls not only take time, but require energy and emotion, two "e" words that many of us seem to lack these days. We’re inundated with Facebook, texting, IM’ing, Skype, Twitter and e-mail. By increasingly relying on those ways of communicating, we’re losing the part of ourselves that can really just … talk to another person, one on one.

While many of us may dislike using the phone, here’s a third "e" word that can help: Etiquette, and not in the old-fashioned-y sense.

"We have become so busy multitasking that we are losing interpersonal skills for phone communication and even face-to-face communication," says Sue Fox, author of "Etiquette For Dummies" and "Business Etiquette For Dummies."

Here are some etiquette tips, or recommendations, about dealing with phone calls:

  • Speak in an "even" tone, and clearly: As speakers, we often "mumble, shout, whisper, or speak with food in our mouths," Fox says.
  • Don’t talk while being distracted by all the technology around you. Go to a room or area where there is no other technology that can tempt you with interruptions. Find a comfortable chair (or area to stand), where you can just focus on the phone call, and not be lured by beeps, message flashes, screens and other white-noise interruptions of technology.
  • As a listener, your job is to "really listen," says Fox. Sounds simple, but, she says, "as listeners, we do other things when we’re supposed to be listening, listen without hearing anything the other person says, or respond to another person’s question from left field — with an entirely different topic.”
  • "Find the correct distance from your mouth to hold the receiver so that your voice doesn’t sound like part of the ambient background, or like a hectoring protester speaking into a bullhorn,” she says.
  • "Exercise patience on the phone, and let other people finish their sentences."
  • "Confirm you’re listening with periodic (verbal) sounds, such as 'ah-hah' 'yes' and the like."
  • Believe it or not, your "posture when you speak on the phone strongly affects how you sound to the person on the other end" as well as "the energy that comes across on the telephone," Fox says. "Don’t slump in your chair; sit up straight. Also, smiling while you speak can actually make the tone of your voice more pleasant." (Who knew?!)
  • "Never use phone calls as an opportunity to get caught up with paper-shuffling," she says. (This is a big one for me, I admit it: Guilty!)
  • "Remind yourself that feeling 'out of control’ in a phone call is just a state of mind," says Turkle. “You can warmly and firmly set boundaries in a phone call. Say: 'I wanted so much to hear your voice … It always lifts me up. But I only had five minutes. So, if it's okay with you, let's chat for those five minutes. It would be precious to me.' "  Meaning, says Turkle: "Reaffirm what is precious about the phone call, that you will hear the voice — and take out of the phone call the thing that may mar it for you — the tension that it might interfere with other responsibilities, other pressing matters."
  • You may not like to talk on the phone, but "keep up telephone contact with close friends," Turkle says. "They have things to say that they don't want to say in e-mail or text. Count on it. You will hear things in the cadence of their voice, their inflection. Learn to limit these conversations; it is a crucial life skill. Learning it with friends who care about you will put you in good stead for the rest of your life."

We should consider voice contact "a sacred space" for fostering intimacy, Turkle says. "You need it with certain people and at certain life moments. I have studied families that have been fractured when parents or siblings have been informed by e-mail that new babies are expected — or that couples are engaged. Again, technologies of efficiency are brought into moments of intimacy — but at cost."

She believes in using the phone for both "very good news and very bad news."

People, she says, "want and need to console each other. They want and need to celebrate with each other. Remember that these moments, good and bad, make up a life." And the telephone needs to be part of it.

More about technology in our lives:

Check out msnbc.com's Technolog on Facebook,  and on Twitter, follow Suzanne Choney, who admits she does not like to talk on the phone, and has noticed the same discomfort among others.