The Strange Fate of the Business Phone Call

Workplace phone-calls used to have rigid, unforgiving specs. The Internet made them weirder

Clive Thompson
11 min readFeb 16


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve stopped calling people on the phone.

I realized this the other day while inspecting my mobile-phone bill. Apparently I made only 8 minutes worth of phone calls in all of January. That’s pretty average for me, in fact; in 2022, I made fewer than 10 minutes of calls each month. (Except for July, when I blew it out with 23 minutes.)

It’s not that I don’t talk to people! I’m a reporter. Literally all I do is talk to people, much of the day, and write down what they say.

It’s just that these days, those conversations essentially never take place in a traditional phone call. Instead, I talk to people almost exclusively via video. First I email (or text) my interview subjects; we figure out a good time; then I send them a link for a Zoom or Google Hangouts session.

I realize I’m an extreme case here. Many folks still make plenty of phone calls. There are loose generational differences; older folks (generally) prefer a voice call, younger ones (generally) prefer texting or video chat. There have been plenty of pieces written pondering the many reasons younger people are more averse to making phone calls.

That’s not really what I’m writing about here, though. I’m primarily interested in the business phone call — and how technology has changed it.

I’ve been making business calls since the mid 90s, when I first started working as a reporter. Things were so weirdly different back then that I thought I’d describe the evolution I’ve seen since. It’s a fascinating glimpse at how shifts in communications technology can tweak the fabric of daily life …

A closeup of a woman’s mouth and nose, with her finger held to her lips in the “sssssssh quiet” gesture
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

1) Mid-90s: Make sure you’re in a quiet, quiet place

Back in the 90s, there was one overarching rule for a self-respecting business call: Quiet.

Quiet in the background, I mean.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.