Unexpected phone calls: A modern horror story

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Adria Barich is a haunted woman. Her tormentor tracks her everywhere, threatening to ambush her in a dimly lit parking garage, as she drives down a desolate road or when she’s let her guard down to wash dishes or collapse on the couch.

“I’ve actually changed my ringtone a few times, because I start to associate it with terror,” says Barich, a 24-year-old California woman who works in marketing. “But every time that I do, after, like, a week or so, it just becomes terrifying again.”

There is nothing that makes Barich seize up with fear like an incoming call.

“I feel anxious. I stand up. I also kind of make myself pretend that I didn’t see it,” she says. And nine times out of 10, I’m not going to answer it. If someone really needs to reach me, they can text me, leave a voice mail or keep calling me again and again and again. I wait for their next move before I decide what I’m going to do.”

She also hates that she can’t read the facial cues 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 in place. (“When I have to book an appointment over the phone, there have been so many times I just agree to the first time they throw out just to get off the call.”) It got so bad that Barich recorded a new voice mail greeting to ward off repeat offenders. “Hi, it’s Adria,” she began. “I really do not like answering my phone, so if this could be a text, that would be wonderful. Otherwise, please be aware it’s probably going to take me quite some time to get back to you. Don’t take it personally. It’s just who I am as a person.”

She posted her new greeting on TikTok with the caption, “phone calls are literally the worst thing invented.” The sentiment resonated. Barich got comments from hundreds of people with similar phone phobias. One tortured soul from across the pond asked whether she could rerecord the message in a British accent, so they could use it as their own.

If these levels of live-caller dread sound ludicrous to you, congratulations. Maybe your friends and family just call to chat, and you welcome these telephonic drop-bys even when they are not invited or forewarned. Maybe those conversations seldom veer into awkwardness or tedium.

For the rest of us, impromptu calls have become roughly equivalent to turning up unannounced at someone’s home and smushing your face up against their window. Our comfort and patience with person-to-person calls have eroded as text messaging became the preferred way of communicating all but the gravest of news. The ringtone grows ominous. For whom does it toll?

“My mom will call me at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, 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! What’s up? And I’m like: ‘Well, I’m at work. What’s up with you? Can you just text me? ”

When Wheeler and his buddy Sean Fau decided to start a podcast, inspiration struck for the perfect show title: “Text Before Calling.” They talk about all manner of topics on their show, but this bit of modern etiquette is one subject on which they’re in lockstep.

“Hearing the phone ringing at all is bothersome to my soul,” says Fau, 42. “I despise phone calls in general.”

When he does hear that miserable noise, it sets off a cascade of split-second deliberations: “Do I really want to deal with this person right now?” Do I have an excuse?

When Wheeler and Fau agreed to hop on the line for this story, it was only the second time in a decade of friendship that they’d spoken by phone. (They communicate mostly via Twitter direct messages, and they vastly prefer it that way.)

Texts are also good. Texts are like missiles. ‘Where is this thing?’ ‘What time are you meeting me?’ I like how succinct they are,” Wheeler says.

If texts are precision missiles, phone calls can feel like hot-air balloons drifting without a destination.

“It can be so discursive,” Fau says. “You’re like, ‘Okay, how are you?’ ‘Good.’ ‘I’m fine.’ ‘What’s up?’ Can we get to the point here?” Plus, he adds: “I have a distinct feeling that calling is just rude in general. It’s the idea that people only call because they need your attention right now.”

The fact that they require immediate and total attention is part of what people find unnerving about unexpected phone calls, says Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Also, there’s no real time to prepare. Hancock recently learned how unsettling it is for his PhD students to receive an unplanned call from him. It always freaks them out. They think: ‘Why would he be calling? I must’ve done something bad. What have I done?’ ”

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

That happy buzz is a sharp contrast to the anxiety Munds feels now, a discrepancy she captured in a recent TikTok. It’s a disturbance. I’m being taken out of my moment, my safe space,” she says. “Back in the day, we didn’t have the resources to be prepared for everything. We went with the flow. Now we’re so used to planning out everything. We don’t like surprises.”

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

“It’s calming,” 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?

To Geri Moran, 74, it’s text messages that are agitating. 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 doesn’t want to stop using the bathroom, never mind responding to a friend. And when a call comes to her landline she doesn’t feel a bit bad about letting the machine pick up. That’s why she tries not to give out her cell number.

“When people call your cell or text you, they expect an immediate response. That annoys the hell out of me,” Moran says. “I’ve never had anyone call me out because I responded a day or two later to an email or voice mail. But I’ve had people call me out if I don’t respond to a text in an hour or two. I have an actual life. I’m not going to interrupt myself all the time.”

Moran has no qualms about calling people out of the blue. And she’s delighted when her own phone rings. “I love talking on the phone,” she says. She thinks it offers a kind of intimacy that texting can’t touch.

But there is one instance when an incoming call will make her blood pressure rise. Moran has a friend who likes to call without warning. And it’s never just a voice call; it’s always via FaceTime.

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

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