Why Are Young People Afraid to Use Their Phones the Way They’re Meant to Be Used?

You know. To talk.

I picked some tomatoes and basil this morning to take to my daughter at her apartment in West Philly. After work, I’ll text her to let her know I’m headed to the garage to pick up my car. When I park on her block, I’ll text her to let her know I’m there. I’ll do this despite the fact that texting requires me to fish out my reading glasses and put them on, since the tiny little letters on the phone are too freaking small for me to see without them. I’m texting her on my phone, which I really ought to be able to use to call her, instead of using it to write her a message. But there’s no sense calling her, because she won’t answer her phone. She doesn’t want to talk to me.

She doesn’t want to talk to anyone else, either. She doesn’t want to call the Thai place to order takeout. She doesn’t want to call her landlord to complain that the stove isn’t lighting. She doesn’t want to call her supervisor at work to say she isn’t feeling well. Actually talking to someone is so hard. She’d rather order her curry online, shoot the landlord an email, click a box on CommonOffice to say she won’t be coming into work.

Apparently, my daughter isn’t alone.

Frequently, when I’m at work, my phone rings. The phone call won’t be for me. But the person on the other end is palpably relieved at having gotten through to a human being, so I listen, take a message, be as helpful as I can. Our front desk is manned by a combo of part-time help and interns, and in whatever training manual they’re using, I’m convinced there’s a notation that says: WHEN IN DOUBT, PUT CALLS THROUGH TO SANDY HINGSTON. SHE ACTUALLY PICKS UP HER PHONE WHEN IT RINGS.

My young colleagues don’t. I’ve watched them. I’ll be sitting in their offices. The phone will ring. They scan the caller ID, but they don’t pick up. “I’ll email her later,” they’ll say, or, “I don’t feel like talking to him.” My colleagues are good, conscientious employees. But they don’t seem to understand why they have phones on their desks. It’s so that you can talk to people, duh!

I thought maybe my daughter and the young people I worked with were anomalies. She’s in counseling; they’re in journalism. Their jobs would seem to require that they talk to people all day. Maybe they’re just tired of it?

But then I saw this piece in the Wall Street Journal about how businesses can’t get young people to answer their goddamned phones. Millennials, it says, despite having grown up with cell phones practically surgically attached to them, don’t really see them as phones. They have “different expectations for how and when they’d like to be reached.” Phone calls, these young folk say, are “unwanted” and “outdated.” In other words, I’ll get back to you when I feel like getting back to you.

Millennials’ bosses, however, for some reason feel that their workers should be at the disposal of clients, if you can imagine such a thing. And thus is born the career of Mary Jane Copps, a “phone-use consultant” whom companies can hire to teach younger workers how to, um, use the phone. In that job, she works to overcome what she calls “phone phobia”: a lack of confidence among users “that they’ll be able to say the right words in the right order in the right amount of time.”

Which is to say, they don’t want to wing it. They want to craft their messages, carefully curate them to make sure the words comport with their image, instead of just casually saying, “Hi, Bill? Sandy Hingston from Philadelphia magazine here. I have a couple of questions for you. Give me a call when you have a minute, please?” That’s the sort of script that Mary Jane Copps writes out for her clients’ millennial employees. For which she charges $1,800 a day.

The WSJ article also mentions a manager at a utility company who “recently had to teach one young employee what a dial tone was and explain that desktop phones don’t require you to press ‘Send.’” Finally, a way to repay the many, many times my younger co-workers have walked me through the process of updating Adobe Acrobat!

I appreciate the convenience of texting (though I’d appreciate it more if my eyesight were still 20/20). I get that when I’m hard at work, I might not want a jangling phone interrupting my thought process (though millennials don’t have jangling phones; they have phones that play the Hip Hop Chicken ringtone. Unless they’re being ironically retro, in which case they have the Jangling Phone ringtone). But I can’t help feeling that if you’re sitting in your office at work, and your desk phone, which is provided to you by your employer and which your employer pays for, rings, you should pick it up and answer it.

Yeah, it might be some crazy lady from South Philly who’s upset about the doughnuts on the cover of the Best of Philly issue because those aren’t the best doughnuts in Philly, and she ought to know, because her Uncle Vinnie makes the best doughnuts in Philly. Or it might be Mrs. Not A Top Doctor, calling to let you know that her husband ought to be A Top Doctor, because he’s the best doctor that ever was. It might be the mom of an autistic child, upset about the story you did on learning disabilities, which is the most irresponsible thing ever written, and how can you live with yourself?!?! It might be a wrong number. It might be almost anything. But this much is sure: It’s a human being on the other end of that line, someone with hopes and dreams and needs who’s vulnerable enough to reach out to you for help and healing. Is checking for the latest on Lamar Odom really so much more important than that?

Unless, of course, it’s an electronic telemarketer. In which case you hang up. There, was that so hard?

And oh, hey, millennials? If you feel dissed by this piece, why not give me a call? The number’s 215-279-8319. Yeah, right.