Sunday, March 20, 2011


Phone calls were important.
Looking back sixty or so years ago, telephones in the US were used mostly by businesses, and only the affluent were sure to have a home phone. Growing up, where I came from, "regular" people typically used a pay phone and did so only when a call was deemed important. If some family on the block actually had a phone, usually what they had was called a ”party-line” (often shared line by four or more families) and waits for a line were sometimes long. Relatives and neighbors often came over and asked to make a necessary call, and this gave them an excuse to stay and visit for a while.

By the mid-fifties, the private line telephones were popularized and soon the device was a household "must". Just about everyone was phoning everybody else. Family members had lengthy daily chats and made frequent calls to businesses for information, for appointments, or to have things like groceries and carryout foods delivered. And about that time, as I remember, it wasn't unusual for people to spend a couple of hours or more a day talking on the phone. One of the first items of information exchanged among workmates, classmates, and even the most casual acquaintances was: " What's your phone number?" And call they did - at any hour from 7 am to after 10 pm. Apparently, almost everybody was overjoyed to use the phone for all kinds of social interaction. We acted to a phone ring like Pavlov's dog - jumping up and scurrying. We dropped even the most important happenings in the home to answer the phone. It seems it was a sign of social importance to answer the home phone ten or more times a day, and all calls were answered with eagerness, if not urgency.

Gradual disenchantment with the telephone
Now this “in love with the phone” trend, continued for several decades. We talked often to friends and family and made numerous calls each day for information or to leave messages. If my memory is correct, that would have been up to the 1990’s. At about that time, the technology improved and caller ID and voicemail became widespread. At some point, most people stopped jumping up to answer every time the phone rang. (Undoubtedly, a lot of telephone dissatisfaction was related to the exponential increase in phone-sales calls.) They began to think, at least at times, that the device was obtrusive and remained seated at the dinner table or watching a favorite program, saying, " Let it go to voicemail." They checked their voicemail usually once or twice a day, and would return a call or not, depending on their judgment of its importance.

There was a fast re-enthrallment with phone conversations again around the turn of the present century as the cell phone began to be a “must” for people of all ages. Some people, and particularly teenagers, continue to be frequent cell phone users. The cell phone turned out to be handy, but what with major car wrecks while conversing and a potential brain cancer link, it's no wonder that a substantial fraction of the population has cut back on cell phone calls. Of course, the vendors of the phone technology were more than anxious to offer all kinds of other services – texts, email, games, music, Internet, etc. – and so the newer sorts of cell phones continued to find huge markets. Dialing a number for a conversation is only one of many options on the latest phones.

Now, more than a decade into the 21st century, a lot of people don’t pick up either their home or cell phone when it rings. And, some of us don't even listen to voicemail, except at work and then only if we’re instructed to. If you really want to speak to these people, you have to email first and set up an appointment for a phone conversation. Even the mere asking for a phone conversation may create certain hesitancies, if not embarrassment.

So, if we are no longer talking to people outside our homes by phone, how can we possibly hope to stay in touch? We still have contact, of course, but we do it another way by "more advanced” technology. And that technology is double-edge sword. It allows us to communicate but it takes away our "presence." Well, even the phone created some level of "disembodiment," as family and neighbors visited without the person-to-person dimension. But, at least, the phone allowed for a voice, which is a very special part of one’s physical self.

Who’s calling, please?
For lots of us, a phone call from a friend or a family member is an unusual event. Of course, we still love our family and friends, but it's the digital message - an email, a text, a tweet, a photo - and not the spoken word that is more likely to get through. Large sectors of the population don’t bother to have a home phone and just carry a cell phone. What's more, the youth excepted, a lot of us seldom use our cell phone for voice-to-voice calls and just keep it for "emergencies" that could occur outside of the home. At home, we may have a computer phone instead of “land-line,” something that’s a lot less expensive than a regular telephone and has the advantage of portability. But, as communication initiators, we are just as likely to send a quick text or email as to actually "dial" a number. And as communication receivers, we would often rather read a quick message than to "bother" with a phone call that might extend itself more than we expect or otherwise take up our time with "extraneous" topics.

Like it or not, for the time being, the Internet and the cell phone text are our main communication methods at work and at home. And it’s clear, as well, that every hour of Internet time makes for even less time for face-to-face contact with other people. It seems that many of us have actually “traded in” most of our in-person interactions for Internet activities.  Beyond that, if most households continue to be made up of just one or two people and both with "busy" schedules, there might not be many opportunities to have a personal chat with anyone outside the workplace, where I presume some oral communication will continue to occur. But, then again, even in banks and offices, we’re often instructed to use the automated functions for both regular transactions and to “report” troubles. I'm reminded of a current TV commercial where two people are seated at a dining table facing each other, unspeaking, and sending their messages to one another via texts and email.

A scary panorama
Recently, I ran across a new book that sums up a frightening state of affairs. It’s called: The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century by pyschologists Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz. It’s a report about psych-patients who became so isolated that they stopped intiating contact, even with people who were the most important to them. Having shut off, or been shut off  from family and friends, they became increasingly morose and some were suicidal. The authors describe extreme personalities – the ones who underwent pschotherapy – but it’s their opinon that a large fraction of the US population suffers from some degree of isolation, either socially- or self-inflicted. And, speaking for a lot of us, who don’t consider ourselves candidates for psychotherapy, we still have to admit we are just plain lonely a good part of the time. Texts, email, blogs, and commenting on blogs help to fill up the void. But, in a nicer world, more of our waking hours would be filled with friendly, human voices.

Can you imagine a time in the future when most children wouldn’t learn oral communication skills? And, no, I’m not talking about abused or neglected children, but about the wider population. It might be quite enough for them to convey their needs and feelings in texts, email, and uploaded videos. Speech would tend to become a thing of the past - mostly left to lawyers, politicians, pundits, and other news reporters. Under those circumstances, witticisms, prose, poetry, and dramatic sequences might continue to blossom, but the warmth of a friendly voice, in-person or over the phone, would be an infrequent event. Is all this a fantasy or a look at the future. What do you think?

Other thoughts on the situation
A century or two ago, a lot of people lived long distances from a good part of their family and friends. Their main way of staying in touch was by letters and those could easily be months apart. On the other hand, back then, most people lived with, or close by, their large families so they really didn’t miss out on much human contact – in fact, some folks probably had more in-person dealings than they wanted. Nevertheless, many of them expressed sadness because of little communication with so many of their loved ones. One principal way they had to overcome this problem was through visiting. Visitors were few and far between, but when they did arrive, they tended to stay for periods of weeks or months.

Maybe, we should encourage some longer visits from people who are important to us, and in that way, assure ourselves more hours of much desired, face-to-face communication. In the meantime, and between visits, don’t be so hesitant to dial up loved ones and be ready to repeat the dialing (or send out advisory email) until they pick up the phone.

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Anonymous said...

There are reasons for NOT picking up a phone in the last, at least, fifteen years. Most of the time the call is someone trying to sell you something. Some days my phone wouldn't even ring if it weren't for 800 numbers or unknown. And there is always the automated, computer generated voice that you are just sure came from another planet.
I have six living children... all of which call me, at least, once a day. I have a next door neighbor who calls on the average of five. (she always waits until I am on a ladder, in the basement or cooking dinner. Last time I was cleaning the ceiling fan in my kitchen).
Add the calls up. I wouldn't do anything but answer the phone if I jumped to 'get it' every time it rang.
I am anything but lonely. Four of my children live within a mile of my home. Children, (grown) grandchildren (with babies) run in and out of my house all day long.
I never even know how many people will be here for dinner.
And house guests? I just had one who stayed six weeks. Lord, deliver me from that experience for a while.
The reason I don't answer the phone?.... I'm asleep... or unconcious.

GrandmaS said...

Well, anonymous, I must say that you are one of the "lucky ones" who still live very near much of your large family. You, obviously, have a surplus of phone calls and person-to-person dealings with most of your important people. But I hope you'll appreciate the fact that a lot of grannies came from and went on to have small families, which are now distant from us. We find ourselves living in parts of the country that we never imagined when we first left home. At any rate, all your close relatives (and even the ones who live far away) should forgive you for not answering the phone every time it rings.

sherry hill said...

I really liked this post and can definitely relate. More and more people are not talking but texting, emailing and as a former teacher, I find it frightening. So sick of automated messages when the human voice is so much needed. Too many people leave on their answering machines, a message is left and you never hear back. What if it were an emergency? Heaven help us all.

GrandmaS said...

Yes, Sherry Hill, it's a sad state of affairs. Unfortunately, it seems to be just another case, among many, showing that we "can't go home, again."

Here's a comment from a NYTimes blog on this same subject that just about sums it up. " ... people are busy and never have time to sit and talk for 30 mins or an hour, or two hours. Phone calls now only happen when someone is driving to/from somewhere, or waiting in line for something, or because it's "call the relatives" day (like doing a chore, to get it out of the way).