‘i’m not a phone person.’ That’s an annoying sentence to be on the receiving end of, isn’t it? What does it even mean? Everyone is a phone person. Unless you own a Nokia 3210 or you are currently living off-grid in a yurt, you are guaranteed to spend a portion of your day on your phone. If you’re ‘not a phone person’, it means you’re someone who picks and chooses who they communicate with and how efficiently, depending on your mood.
It is with deep regret that I disclose that I am a person who says they are not a phone person. My relationship with my phone is complicated – sporadic at best, negligent at worst. I dread turning it off airplane mode every morning, greeted by a flood of WhatsApp group and email notifications, and yet I feel fidgety and restless the minute I put it on airplane mode before I go to bed. I hate how much of a time-drain my phone is – that there never seems to be a way of ‘completing’ emails. I hate knowing that if I don’t reply to them, I make life worse for my future self with the inevitable ‘just a gentle nudge’ follow-ups or – my least favourite message – ‘????????’ from a frustrated friend on WhatsApp.
It’s taken me a while to realise that constant and reliable communication is what makes a lot of the people I love feel loved, whereas it makes me feel trapped and claustrophobic. When I took the Myers-Briggs personality tests, one of the most illuminating things I learned was that I am deeply engaged with people when face-to-face with them, then can completely disconnect once we’re apart. The quality of real-life interaction is what concerns me – I honestly don’t mind if my friends never call or text, I just need them to be present, open and engaged when we’re together.
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Plot twist! A pandemic looted our friendships of that luxury. Further plot twist: I ended up spending all of lockdown on my own in a cottage by the sea. It was a semi-accident. I went there for two weeks to finish my novel, Covid broke out, and I decided to stay for three months. I went from living in the centre of a city and seeing people at least four times a week, to living in the middle of nowhere with no car and no company other than some cows in an adjacent field and an 89-year-old neighbour, who I chatted (bellowed) to every morning through his double-glazing.
For the first time in my life, I was not only grateful for my phone but my phone was my most reliable source of joy. I craved constant communication. I valued every notification. The sight of a face on a screen was the closest thing I could experience to touch; the sound of a seven- minute rambling VoiceNote recorded just for me felt like the most intimate act imaginable. In those indistinguishable, empty days of spring, I found myself barely able to concentrate on books or films. Instead, I spent my evenings on my phone – sending messages back and forth or eating dinner on a FaceTime call.
It was during lockdown that I first saw the front cover of my novel, Ghosts, with an illustration of a woman staring at her phone. At first, I wasn’t sure. I thought it made it seem like the story was just about a woman waiting for a text. But my publisher pointed out that this year has changed our relationship to communication. ‘Staring into the screen of a phone is symbolic now,’ she told me. ‘It’s about looking for connection.’
I came back to London in the summer. As restrictions eased, I returned to seeing people, going out and having a social life. And the little egg timer on my iPhone clocking up the hours of my screen time eventually decreased.
But I have a new-found respect for consistency in communication. I still dread the daily wake-up of my phone and all the subsequent obligations for replies. I still receive plenty of ‘gentle nudges’ and lines of question marks. But I understand the value of virtual conversation and how, for many people, it is the way they feel connected not just to their friends but to the world.
I recently had a long train journey and found myself doing something strange. I scrolled back to January 2020 and re-read every message in my WhatsApp history between me and my best friend, like I was reading a book. I novelised WhatsApp. It was like I was revising a subject: Friendship During A Global Crisis. All the modules were there – wishing each other a happy new year, blissfully unaware of what was about to ensue. Worrying about the spread of a disease that sounded like a refreshing Mexican beer. Checking in on each other. Photos from our Government-sanctioned daily walks. Planning FaceTime dates. None of it felt like wasted time as I read it back. None of it felt like sand running through a figurative egg-timer – it all felt important and restorative.
And then there’s my favourite image of 2020, the one I always return to when I’m scrolling idly through my photo roll in bed at night, when my phone should be on airplane mode. A laptop screenshot taken of a seven-way zoom call with my closest friends in the bleakest moment of lockdown. We’d finished a drunken Saturday night quiz and decided to have a two-hour disco. One of us was DJ, the rest of us muted ourselves. There we all are: seven floating bodies dancing in seven little squares. Hundreds of miles between us, and yet indisputably right next to each other.
‘Ghosts’ by Dolly Alderton (£14.99, Fig Tree) is out now