Why No One Answers Their Phone Anymore

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Telephone culture is disappearing.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

But in the last couple years, there is a more specific reason for eyeing my phone’s ring warily. Perhaps 80 or even 90 percent of the calls coming into my phone are spam of one kind or another. Now, if I hear my phone buzzing from across the room, at first I’m excited if I think it’s a text, but when it keeps going, and I realize it’s a call, I won’t even bother to walk over. My phone only rings one or two times a day, which means that I can go a whole week without a single phone call coming in that I (or Apple’s software) can even identify, let alone want to pick up.

There are unsolicited telemarketing calls. There are straight-up robocalls that merely deliver recorded messages. There are the cyborg telemarketers, who sit in call centers playing prerecorded bits of audio to simulate a conversation. There are the spam phone calls, whose sole purpose seems to be verifying that your phone number is real and working.

The Federal Communications Commission has been trying to slow robocalls for at least half a decade, but it doesn’t seem to have done anything to stem the tide. YouMail is an app that tries to block these kinds of calls, and they create an estimate of how many robocalls are being made each month. The numbers are staggering and April 2018 showed them at an all-time high.

Telemarketers, of course, were the original people who took advantage of the telephone culture’s drive to pick up the phone. But people cost money, even my dumb teenage self calling up plant managers in Alabama trying to sell them software to manage their material-data safety sheets. People get bored with their crappy, repetitive jobs. People quit.

Machines-the software kind that can dial phone numbers, at least-are cheap. They don’t get drunk or go back to school or have a sick child. They just call and call and call and call. As often as not, when I’ve made the mistake of picking up, there’s just dead air, maybe just for a few seconds, as a person is patched in, or maybe-if I don’t say anything-for a while until the machine hangs up. Sometimes it’s a recorded message. And worse, most of the time I pick up, I’m giving the spammer valuable information that my number is a live number, which they will sell to the next spammer.

This happened 3.4 billion times last month, where someone had to make the decision to pick up or to let it go, and give in to the change.