University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

The Line is Not Busy Enough

Illustration by James Heimer


e started staying home, isolating, and quarantining last year. Many of us are still there. We have all of the latest and greatest computers, monitors, and devices that we need to stay plugged into to the outside world. And yet … something is often missing.

If you need more human connection in these strange times, let me suggest an increasingly unpopular communications tool. It’s interactive and allows you to communicate with others in what is now referred to as “real time.” Previous generations called it the telephone.

The oh-so-smart devices of today can text, take pictures, post comments on Twitter, and look up reviews on the Internet. Sometimes, rarely, people even talk to each other. But, if I can’t sit down with someone in person, the phone remains my preferred method of connecting.

Maybe I prefer the phone because I’m over 50 and remember busy signals, answering machines, and when calling long-distance was a big deal because it was so expensive. I remember when pay phones were everywhere and only cost a dime, then a quarter. I know: cash. Who can be bothered with that anymore?

I started dating a woman in the late 1980s. Having two-hour conversations on the phone with her was not uncommon. We talked about her small-town roots, my big city upbringing, books, music, movies, families, and cats. Today, we have been married for more than a quarter of a century. If we’re not under the same roof, I would much rather talk to her on the phone than send her an email. My wife has one of the world’s great laughs. You can’t hear that on an email. Texting “LOL” doesn’t come close. Do you want to hear the music or just read the charts?

By now we’ve all learned how to spend too many hours a week on Zoom. But those virtual meetings seem best suited for group gatherings, not one-on-one conversations.

And it isn’t just you and all your friends who’ve forgotten this skill: Many businesses have lost sight of the reasons to use the phone. At some point, thanks to the internet and Facebook, many companies decided that they didn’t have to talk to customers anymore and phone numbers disappeared from company web sites. But the posted FAQ often doesn’t answer your question, and the “Contact us” button only offers a way to send an email, which frequently goes unanswered. Somewhere down the line, managers will have meetings where they wring their hands about why customers no longer feel a sense of “engagement” with their company.

My solution? Let us dial a number and then speak into the receiver.

While tools like email have streamlined communication at work, it also often leads to endless chains of reply-all exchanges where everyone tries to elbow their way into a discussion. Here’s an old school secret: a five-minute phone call can be more efficient and productive than an email chain that drags on for hours or days.

Those friends you haven’t talked to in years? It might be worth calling them to catch up.

Give them a ring, a buzz, a jingle. You’ll probably find out things they haven’t posted on social media. Sometimes people just need to talk. Not because you can fix their problems, but because you can lend an empathetic ear.

Burl Gilyard (B.A. ’92) is a lifelong writer and reporter. He and his wife still have a land line.