Unexpected Phone Calls: A Modern Horror Story

Remark

Adria Barich is a tormented woman. Her tormentor follows her everywhere and threatens to ambush her in a dimly lit parking garage, while driving down a deserted road or when she lets her guard down to wash the dishes. or plop down on the sofa.

“I’ve even changed my ringtone a few times because I’m starting to associate it with terror,” said Barich, a 24-year-old California woman who works in marketing. “But every time I do that, after about a week, it just gets terrifying again.”

There’s nothing that scares Barich quite like an incoming phone call.

“I feel fear. I harden. I kind of pretend I didn’t see it, too,” she says. “And nine times out of ten I don’t go into it. If someone really needs to reach me, they can text me, leave a voicemail, or keep calling me over and over. I’ll wait for their next move before I decide what to do.”

She also hates that she can’t read the facial expressions and body language of the person on the other end of the line. She recently chose a massage therapist based solely on the fact that the therapist has an online appointment booking system. (“If I have to make an appointment over the phone, there have been so many times I just agreed to throw them out the first time, just to get off the conversation.”) It got so bad that Barich called out a new voicemail greeting recording to ward off repeat offenders. “Hello, this is Adria,” she began. “I really don’t like answering my phone so if this could be a text message that would be great. Otherwise, please note that it will probably take some time for me to get back to you. Don’t take it personally. It’s just who I am as a person.”

She posted her new greeting to TikTok with the caption, “Phone calls are literally the worst thing invented.” The sentiment resonated. Barich received comments from hundreds of people with similar phone phobias. A haunted soul from across the pond asked if she could re-record the message in a British accent so they could use it as their own.

If these levels of fear of live callers sound ridiculous to you, congratulations. Maybe your friends and family call just to chat, and you welcome these phone drop-bys even if they weren’t invited or warned. Perhaps those conversations rarely lead to awkwardness or boredom.

For the rest of us, impromptu phone calls are about equivalent to showing up unannounced at someone’s house and slamming your face against the window. Our comfort and patience with face-to-face conversations has eroded as texting became the preferred way to communicate all but the most serious news. The ringtone becomes ominous. Who is the toll for?

“My mom calls me at 4 p.m. and my first assumption is, ‘Oh, my grandma died,’ or something happened. There’s always a moment of panic,” says Eric Wheeler, 35. “And she’s always like, ‘Hey! How are you?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I am at work. What’s wrong with you? Can you just text me?’ ”

When Wheeler and his friend Sean Fau decided to start a podcast, inspiration struck for the perfect show title: “Text Before Calling.” They talk about all sorts of topics on their show, but this piece of modern etiquette is one they know about.

“Hearing the phone ring is annoying to my soul,” says Fau, 42. “I despise phone calls in general.”

When he hears that miserable sound, it triggers a cascade of split-second deliberations: “Do I really want to hang out with this person? Do I have an excuse?”

When Wheeler and Fau agreed to jump on the phone for this story, it was only the second time in a decade of friendship that they spoke on the phone. (They usually communicate via direct messages on Twitter, and they prefer it that way.)

Lyrics are good too. “Lyrics are like rockets. “Where is this thing?” “What time will you meet me?” I like how concise they are,” says Wheeler.

If texts are precision missiles, phone calls can feel like hot air balloons floating around with no destination.

“It can be so discursive,” says Fau. “You’re like, ‘Okay, how are you?’ ‘Good.’ ‘I’m fine.’ ‘How are you?’ Can we get to the point here?” Moreover, he adds: “I strongly feel that calling is generally just rude. It’s the idea that people are just calling because they need your attention right now.”

The fact that they require immediate and total attention is part of what makes people nervous about unexpected calls, says Jeff Hancock, founder and director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. There is also no real time to prepare. Hancock recently discovered how upsetting it is for his PhD students to receive an unscheduled phone call from him. “It always scares them off. They think, ‘Why would he call? I must have done something bad. What have I done?’ ”

Melissa Kristin Munds, a 34-year-old video producer from Louisiana, remembers the excitement of the ringing landline during her childhood. Maybe it was a family member or a salesperson, but it could also have been a classmate (maybe even a boy!) who called to talk to her. “There was always an element of hope and surprise and excitement,” she says.

That happy buzz is in stark contrast to the fear Munds feels now, a discrepancy she documented in a recent TikTok. ‘It’s a malfunction. I’m taken out of my moment, my safe place,” she says. “In the past, we didn’t have the resources to be prepared for everything. We went with the flow. Now we are so used to planning everything. We don’t like surprises.”

Munds’ phone is usually on silent or vibrate, but she recently changed her ringtone to “Moonlight Sonata.”

“It’s soothing,” she says. “So when I hear it, I don’t panic.”

Spam has taken over our phones. Will we ever want to answer them again?

For Geri Moran, 74, it’s the text messages that are exciting. She’s a bookkeeper, but she also designs humorous products that she sells on Etsy — funny mugs, coasters, and the like — and when she gets into her creative mode, she won’t stop to go to the bathroom, let alone respond to a friend. And when a call comes in on her landline, she doesn’t mind having the machine answer it. That’s why she tries not to release her mobile number.

“When people call or text you, they expect an immediate answer. That irritates me to no end,” says Moran. “I’ve never had anyone call me because I responded to an email or voicemail a day or two later. But I’ve had people call me if I don’t respond to a text within an hour or two. I have a real life. I’m not going to interrupt myself all the time.”

Moran has no problem calling people out of the blue. And she is elated when her own phone rings. “L love on the phone,” she says. She thinks it offers a form of intimacy that texting can’t achieve.

But there is one case where an incoming call raises her blood pressure. Moran has a friend who likes to call without warning. And it’s never just a voice call; it’s always through FaceTime.

“That drives me crazy,” says Moran. “That’s the next level for me.”

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