Why talking on the phone is so unpleasant

I generally dislike talking on the phone. I can do it if necessary, and can talk for long times on occasion but it is always a relief to hang up. I don’t know why this is so but when I see so many people with their eyes transfixed to their phones, I assumed that I was in a minority. But it appears that that may not be the case.

Ian Bogost argues that although phones are now ubiquitous, they are being used less and less for actual old-fashioned telephony, where one initiates a call and talks in real time with some one else, because people find it increasingly distasteful.

Why? One reason he says that this is because when compared to the old-land lines, the quality of sound on modern mobile phones is terrible.

On the infrastructural level, mobile phones operate on cellular networks, which route calls between between transceivers distributed across a service area. These networks are wireless, obviously, which means that signal strength, traffic, and interference can make calls difficult or impossible. Together, these factors have made phone calls synonymous with unreliability. Failures to connect, weak signals that staccato sentences into bursts of signal and silence, and the frequency of dropped calls all help us find excuses not to initiate or accept a phone call.

By contrast, the traditional, wired public switched telephone network (PSTN) operates by circuit switching. When a call is connected, one line is connected to another by routing it through a network of switches. At first these were analog signals running over copper wire, which is why switchboard operators had to help connect calls. But even after the PSTN went digital and switching became automated, a call was connected and then maintained over a reliable circuit for its duration. Calls almost never dropped and rarely failed to connect.

Bogost goes into some interesting technical details about why it is that the sampling technology and digital standards that were set when we used landlines and that worked well for them (cutting off high frequencies in the sampling process) have resulted in poor sound quality when we use cell phones, and this was partly due to the fact that we did not anticipate that the environment in which we used our phones would change.

That wasn’t necessarily an issue until the second part of the problem arises: the way we use mobile phones versus landline phones. When the PSTN was first made digital, home and office phones were used in predictable environments: a bedroom, a kitchen, an office. In these circumstances, telephony became a private affair cut off from the rest of the environment. You’d close the door or move into the hallway to conduct a phone call, not only for the quiet but also for the privacy. Even in public, phones were situated out-of-the-way, whether in enclosed phone booths or tucked away onto walls in the back of a diner or bar, where noise could be minimized.

Today, of course, we can and do carry our phones with us everywhere. And when we try to use them, we’re far more likely to be situated in an environment that is not compatible with the voice band—coffee shops, restaurants, city streets, and so forth. Background noise tends to be low-frequency, and, when it’s present, the higher frequencies that Monson showed are more important than we thought in any circumstance become particularly important. But because digital sampling makes those frequencies unavailable, we tend not to be able to hear clearly. Add digital signal loss from low or wavering wireless signals, and the situation gets even worse. Not only are phone calls unstable, but even when they connect and stay connected in a technical sense, you still can’t hear well enough to feel connected in a social one. By their very nature, mobile phones make telephony seem unreliable.


He also says that the design of new phones, where miniaturization has made the speakers and microphones tiny and manufacturers have sought to make them invisible, have none of the features that made talking on the old phones so pleasurable, and concludes:

The 500 handset is solid and hefty while not being too heavy to lift and hold for long periods. That it could be held at all, and that we would enjoy holding it—this is an unsung virtue of the handset. Whether grasped at its center like a handle, cradled at the rounded mouthpiece base with the thumb and forefinger, or wedged between the ear and the shoulder to allow the use of both hands freely, the 500 handset conforms to the ergonomics required for listening and speaking.

The next time you find a pay phone or an old Western Electric 500 (try any antiques store), pick it up and hold it to your head. The speaker covers the ear almost completely, its punctured concave chamber allowing the head and ear to move in relation to the handset without compromising the sound’s pathway to the ear. And on the speaking side, you might be surprised to remember that your mouth presses up directly against the 500’s microphone enclosure, where dozens of apertures in the plastic cover direct audio toward the convex microphone it contains. Given the limitations of the voice band and PCM sampling, these design choices maximized the telephone’s ability to contain and direct speech while limiting noise pollution and increasing privacy.

Telephone calls haven’t declined because we have become anxious or lazy. They’ve fallen out of favor because using the telephone feels mechanically ungainly as much as socially so.

My office phone is very modern using VOIP technology and has all manner of nifty features. But I notice that the handset is very similar in design to the old Western Electric 500 handset and the sound quality is pretty good. So these things are not entirely dying out.


  1. fentex says

    That’s nonsense. Digital technology delivers a clearer better conversation than analog ever did.

    It’s been discussed for some time now why people increasingly feel actual conversations on phones are annoying to the point where it is may become new etiquette to txt someone before calling them to see if they’d mind talking.

    I suspect txt or IM communication for it’s un-intrusiveness and increased autonomy appeals more for relieving the pressure of requiring an immediate response. I know I only resort to direct coversation when I’m trying to solve a problem and delay is unacceptable.

  2. Dunc says

    This is the perfect opportunity to quote the legendary (and hilarious) James Mickens (aka “the funniest man in Microsoft Research”, aka “the Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence”) on the topic, from his classic article Mobile Computing Research Is a Hornet’s Nest of Deception and Chicanery:

    In a rational world, the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Mobile Phones would look like this:
    [adapted from diagram]
    Level 1: Make phone calls
    Level 2: Everything else

    However, in today’s world, the hierarchy looks like this:
    [adapted from diagram]
    Level 2: A big app store so that I can play wirthless gmes instead of reading history books and improving my life
    Level 3: Rounded translucent GUI elements so that I can pretend that I line in a world made of floating ice bocks with text inside
    Level 4: Integration with social media sites that I hate and which connect me to people that I hate
    Level 5: Custom ringtones because PEOPLE WILL APPARENTLY BUY CUSTOM RINGTONES
    Level 6: Maybe make phone calls LOL

    OK, he’s slightly curmudgeonly, but the full article is hilarious, and I recommend it most highly.

  3. Saad says


    I generally dislike talking on the phone. I can do it if necessary, and can talk for long times on occasion but it is always a relief to hang up.


    I suspect txt or IM communication for it’s un-intrusiveness and increased autonomy appeals more for relieving the pressure of requiring an immediate response. I know I only resort to direct coversation when I’m trying to solve a problem and delay is unacceptable.

    I feel the exact same way. I can’t stand just talking for the sake of it on the phone. If there’s an actual matter at hand, I can discuss it on the phone. I love the un-intrusiveness and autonomy of text and email too.

  4. says

    Sound quality has rarely been the issue for me. My biggest annoyance with cell phones is the same as with landlines: ringing phones are intrusive and demand attention. Sometimes you’re too busy to answer a ringing phone, and it intrudes until answered or the caller gives up. Not everyone has the free time 24/7. My phone is usually on “silent” mode out of necessity because of my job.

    Text messaging allows and encourages greater respect for other people’s time. It’s superior to answering machines, and not just for the noise. Messages can be sent at at any time and answered anywhere at the receiver’s convenience. And messages always get through, even if you had no signal when the message was sent. You don’t have to go home to check your messages.

    Cell phones and text messaging (and the internet in general) have had a major impact on their lives of the deaf and hearing impaired. Texting eliminates dependence on TTD or TTY services, on being at home to receive calls, on ASL translators. People could start communicating on the go and with the hearing able, improving their professional and social lives greatly.



    The biggest problem the deaf encountered in the early days of text messaging was, unsurprisingly, clueless corporations. Telcos refused to offer text-only packages to the deaf, saying “Why do you need a phone if you can’t hear?”

  5. Dunc says

    Good lord, I’ve just re-read my comment, and I clearly need to improve my touch-typing… Also, there a clearly market for a utility that uses OCR to let you copy text out of images.

  6. says

    Remember when phone voice quality was used to get people to switch carriers?


    And for @fentex, “That’s nonsense. Digital technology delivers a clearer better conversation than analog ever did.” No. digital technology can deliver better quality, but the particular technology used for voice calls is not that technology. It is quite different from, let’s say, the digital technology used to encode music.

  7. Sunday Afternoon says

    Mano wrote:

    My office phone is very modern using VOIP technology and has all manner of nifty features.

    Mine too -- I am extremely fortunate to have a real office with a door that I can close (unlike in many cube-infested locations) and use my speakerphone!

  8. dogfightwithdogma says

    I completely understand your dislike of talking on the phone. I find talkng on the phone agonizing and psychologically uncomfortable. Can’t wait to get off the phone. Am constantly resisting the temptation to be rude and short with the more chatty people who call. But I don’t have those same feelings and urges when talking to these same chatty people in person. Thought I was completely alone in my dislike of phone conversations (other than to conduct business and immediately get off the phone).

    Oddly, when I was a teen I could talk for hours on the phone about virtually nothing of importance and feel no discomfort at all. Don’t know what happened. But today I try to avoid phone conversations as though they were the bubonic plague.

  9. EigenSprocketUK says

    #1 fentex and #6 ahcuah are both right, though talking about different aspects. Digital technology is more than adequate to exceed (far exceed) audio quality of old PSTN circuit-switched technology. Your office VoIP phone shows that. Regardless: even if you have a lovely analogue phone connected to an excellent quality PSTN line, you’re not actually getting circuit-switched technology any more: almost everywhere in the world will, for many years, have been using packet switching which emulates circuit switching.
    With mobile handsets you get the limitations of tiny microphones and speakers added to the limitations of cellular networks. So there’s not only the frequency and coding limitations, you’re also getting the irregular gaps (from almost imperceptible to massively obvious) in the audio. And then a highly variable time delay that sometimes sounds like an old inter-continental satellite phone call with added echo. This is because mobile network operators will route their calls through a bewildering number of routes and links (even changing part-way through the call) just to get the cheapest data bits possible.

    It’s a scientific , mathematical, and engineering miracle that mobile phone work at all. The best advice is t   zzck     giv   every       digi    fent       but of course always to bear in mind that ca       sp     nothin       when out and about. Mark my words.

  10. JPS says

    At work I always preferred email to a phone call. (Never got into texting)
    I could read an email, think about it, compose answer, do some research, rewrite the answer, proofread it, and finally hit send.
    When the phone rang I’d have to come up with an answer RIGHT NOW!
    Of course there were situations when right now was important.

  11. Sunday Afternoon says

    @JPS: the vast majority of my 1 to 1 phone calls at work (as opposed to teleconferences) end with an agreement to send an email…

  12. rich rutishauser says

    I’m with JPS @11, in my work it’s really important to have a record of all the exchanges that lead up to a contract with a customer. Inevitably something gets lost while taking notes from a phone call (or even in person) and no one remembers what got missed until it’s too late.

  13. Katydid says

    I’m with JPS, too. I absolutely detest IM, which is always abused by self-important twits who think their whims and desires should override whatever I’m doing. I don’t deal with texts either because the same self-important twits get furious when their texts aren’t immediately answered. I can check email as my schedule allows, think about the response I want to send, and have a record of the conversation to refer back to later if needed.

  14. says

    I’m bothered by all the things mentioned but I also just find phone conversations the worst way of communicating. You are on the spot to respond right away, so you don’t have the benefit of being able to review and edit your response like you would with text or email, but you don’t have the in-person social cues to tell you when one person is done talk and the other is supposed to go so there are often uncomfortable pauses followed by two people trying to talk at once. And, of course, when it’s work related, you have no record of what was discussed so if there are a number of items that need to be followed up on, you are going to end up needing to write an email listing what you think they want and then waiting to hear back to see if that’s really what they want. Why not just leave the tedious call out and get it in writing from the start?

  15. Lofty says

    In my line of work people often text or email me asking for advice when a vehicle has problems. I find it incredibly difficult to get people to accurately report symptoms via text so I usually ring them and guide their gaze and hands to the actual problem. Sometimes it takes half an hour but its faar better than endless misunderstood text messages. As for chatting on a phone, I’m not fussed to talk so long as each end of the conversation is being conducted in a calm environment. If either end’s conditions make clear communication difficult I’ll ask to call back later. The sound clarity of mobiles is highly location dependent and sometimes all I have to do is ask the person to ring back when they have a better signal and a quiet space to talk in.

  16. fentex says

    digital technology can deliver better quality, but the particular technology used for voice calls is not that technology.

    I often wonder about this -- I have read many times people complaining about their cell phone service and it’s various qualities on U.S sites and blogs.

    I have never, ever, experienced any noteworthy issue or problem with mine in twenty plus years in New Zealand. I was amazed in about 1996 when a new company phone allowed me to ring a friend a hundred miles away from any infrastructure to warn them I wouldn’t be back in time for a game of indoor cricket I meant to play in (I was on the far side of the Canterbury plains and apparently the raised antennas on the Port Hills could connect my phone at a hundred miles to my surprise).

    When my city was devastated by earthquakes four years ago at no time did our cell service ever fail (in my experience, I have been told people had issues in the worst hit suburbs) and I always thought that was very complimentary of the networks designers and manufacturers.

    And I have always enjoyed clear and uninterrupted communications, never to my knowledge having lost a connection during a conversation. While I like to think I’m exceptional in some ways I don’t really think my experience with cell phones is exceptional so I’m often a bit confused by what I read online.

  17. eternalstudent says


    And messages always get through, even if …

    LOL I wish.

    Re: talking on the phone..

    I despise voice phone conversations for the simple reason I’m slightly hard of hearing (I seem to be missing a middle frequency band or something; I’m perfectly fine with music). When talking face to face I tend to watch the person’s mouth, and fill in what words I miss (I don’t consider myself able to lip-read but I get enough cues). Over the phone I don’t have that, so I am forced to focus my attention very carefully to be able to pick up maybe 60% of what is being said. If I’m talking with an idiot using speakerphone that goes down to about 20%, and if it’s speakerphone with multiple people in the room I get equivalent information by just hanging up and finding something productive to do.

    It’s roughly the same whether I’m on cell or deskset. I haven’t noticed a major difference between them. A deskset is indeed more comfortable to hold though.

    p.s. Clicking on the “W” to log in isn’t working for me on these pages .. I had to go to Pharyngula to log in then come back. Am I doing something wrong?

  18. EigenSprocketUK says

    @EternalStudent #18— if you can see the WordPress W logo in the dark bar at the top, then you’re logged in. Otherwise, look for the Log In link in the left column below the search button and above the recent posts/recent comments widget.

    It goes to freethoughtblogs.com/singham/wp-login.php, and follows the same pattern for all the other FtB blogs.

  19. Dago Red says


    digital technology can deliver better quality, but the particular technology used for voice calls is not that technology.


    I often wonder about this – I have read many times people complaining about their cell phone service and it’s various qualities on U.S sites and blogs.

    @EigenSprocketUK9 gave a good tech answer. To add to to what was said there — the quality of cellphone calls is largely dependent upon what country you live in, because access to radio frequencies are all regulated/managed by government agencies (i.e. the FCC here in the US). In nations, like the US, where the commercial access has been overly-competitive, access to frequencies was actually auctioned off by the government to the highest-bidder (which lead to outlandish bidding wars), and (perhaps) where too many frequencies are given over to exclusive military and other government uses, cell phone providers have been forced to make many more compromises to call quality than in other parts of the world.

    In short, the US remains one of the worst, if not the worst, places in the world right now for cell phone call quality (while also being among the most expensive too) despite the ubiquity of infrastructure and ability to leverage new cell technology when it comes available. I think for things to actually improve here in the US, we will have to find a new way to handle wireless phone communication at this point that ends, or lessens, our dependence upon the public radio frequencies (such as routing calls to localized wireless Internet access (“Wi-Fi”) and using VoIP, which is one solution I know about being used in some US cities with ubiquitous WiFi coverage). I am very pleased to hear that New Zealand’s government managed access to it’s public frequencies so much! I also have heard Japan’s government has done an excellent job too.

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