The calls come in during twilight. At first, the tone is a whisper. They’re trying to see if I’m someone they’re comfortable with. I look for a common interest: food, film, music—anything that connects us as humans. After that, I let them lead.
I’ve been taking phone calls from strangers for a few months now. This practice started after I was digitally shamed on Twitter. I had written an op-ed in The New York Times worrying about our culture of shame. I empathized with a white teen growing up in a conservative, Midwestern home. In my heart, I know a couple things to be true. We’re all human beings that deserve the opportunity to change or grow. Speaking our truth is better than scolding or silencing the voices that we don’t like. It’s healthy to disagree.
Of course, there was a backlash. I was called racist. My mentions were filled with malice. Strangers tweeted about how they had lost respect for me. Close friends said nothing at all. I was being digitally shamed for arguing against digital shaming. A congressional candidate and internet influencers urged me to issue a public response. It’s a lonely experience to feel like the most hated person alive for just saying what was on my mind.
So I put my phone number in my bio on Twitter. Then, when no one called, I tweeted out my number with an invitation to reach out.
The first call came through around 9 at night. The caller was a librarian with an upbeat voice. I was prepared to answer as many questions as she needed to ask about my op-ed. Instead, she told me about the men in her life. I listened and offered any advice on men that I had—which, as a single woman, is not much. It was surprisingly normal and, after 20 minutes, we said our goodbyes.
The calls started to pour in. A soldier on a military base told me about his favorite films. We talked for two hours, and I loved every minute. A therapist had seen me tweet about my sobriety and called to talk through her own. A man in a loud Uber Pool called on his way home from drinks with coworkers. Like me, he was ashamed that as a teen he had identified as a Republican. A woman who had just moved to the United States for work called to talk about how hard it’s been to make new friends. Someone with an unlisted phone number called to say that I was an idiot and then hung up. Another softly asked if I was OK. Each conversation left me feeling more human, less shamed.
I’ve always loved talking on the phone. I adore the subtle ways a phone call can evoke intimacy. You hear the cracks in a voice, the sound of breath, and the patience of thinking. And there’s no audience. It’s the one-to-one connection that reassures we can correct our mistakes without fear of them following or haunting us. It’s a compassionate technology.
Before hanging up, I check in to see how my caller is feeling. It’s a closure that brings us closer. Surprisingly, no one ever mentioned the article. I merely listened and shared my feelings with dozens of strangers. I’d done this countless times on Twitter, too, but always seemed to miss what they were really saying; the connection between the human heart and human mind somehow got disconnected. Shouting online may bring us instant gratification, but a phone call helps us sleep at night.
Robyn Kanner(@robynkanner) is a writer and designer living in Brooklyn. You can reach her at 929-374-4003.
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