THE New York Times has declared that nobody telephones anybody any more. In a recent story by Pamela Paul called Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You, it said that we’ve all given up on the telephone in favour of texts and e-mails.
“Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward,” wrote Paul. The inimitable Judith Martin, better known as etiquette columnist Miss Manners, agreed with her. Ringing telephones interrupt people and force them to drop what they’re doing, she told Paul. Apparently it’s cocky for the caller to expect this kind of attention – so few of us deserve it.
I suppose I could use low self-esteem as my excuse for rarely using the phone. For me, the thought of picking up a receiver and punching in the digits to pester anybody but my husband or children is so revolting that only absolute necessity can circumvent it. It seems I’m not alone in this -- something cold clamps around our psyches and we must virtually wrestle this anaconda of antipathy to the ground before we can look up a telephone number and proceed.
But the fact that we must look it up at all is proof that something is amiss beyond mere insecurity. Where once upon a time most of us would have had at least 25 numbers lodged in our brains because we called them routinely, now many of us memorize only our own home phone and immediate family’s cell-phone numbers. The rest have to be stored somewhere, usually in some kind of a speed-dialer. I have dutifully recorded the contact information of dear friends of 30 years’ standing, countless relatives, and pals I correspond with every day over the Internet in case I ever feel the need to get verbally in touch. I don’t.
Likewise, if our home phone rings, few of us answer until we’re good and ready. The miracle of call display means “Unavailable name and number” always meets “unavailable response” chez moi. As somebody who works at home, I’m a sitting duck for every service provider and charity with a gimmick or a cause to sell.
Once I read who’s on the other end of the line, I’ll answer the calls of people I know -- if it’s convenient. Otherwise, I’ll get back to them when I’m not tied up on Facebook.
The arrogance of it! Yet I am unrepentant. And, obviously, so is everybody else.
I’m not the only one who chooses to respond to a work-related message on my telephone with a conversation-avoiding e-mail; according to Paul, that’s the norm. Like me, everybody is reserving their emotional energy and true personality for some later time of their own choosing, or, perhaps, never.
How strange this is. What brought it on? My cousin, an actor, in her tribute to my mother at her memorial, chose to do a stellar imitation of her on the phone – Mum’s infectious enthusiasm and the heartfelt way she would respond to interesting news with “Rea-lly?! How terr-ific!” It was an uncanny representation of a treasured aspect of my mother’s personality. It reminded me that as a little kid, I would imitate her on my toy phone, throwing every iota of my being into that imaginary dialogue. I craved whatever fun Mum seemed to be having.
Maybe I got out of the habit of calling people because I couldn’t meet that standard of excellence. A good telephone call is a bit of a performance, an attempt at hospitality made from a distance. It’s no place to be aloof or prickly. Rather, it calls for good cheer, an empathetic spirit, and, of course, active listening. To my mind, anyway, you shouldn’t phone a friend to blather on about the minor problems in your day. You’re there to engage with and buoy your invisible companion, just as he or she ought to lift your spirits. That requires both of you to make an effort.
Andy Warhol once called the telephone “the most intimate and exclusive of all media.” If so, why have we given up that closeness in favour of curt texts and charmless e-mails? I recently reconnected with an old friend, a singer, in an extended long distance call. It was wonderful hearing her husky voice, remembering how talented she has always been, and realizing that she still has her magnificent joie de vivre. I think it made us both want to see each other again much more than e-mails would, no matter how generously we larded them with exclamation points and emoticons.
Ordinarily, however, my gregarious husband -- who gives great phone call – describes me as a “bridge troll” because of my predilection for hiding out from society. With telephoning friends now officially out of style continent-wide, it sounds to me like my disease has caught on.
It’s probably time for mass bridge-troll rehab, a place where we, the standoffish, will only gain our release the day we voluntarily memorize a telephone number, then place that first, traumatic call “just to say ‘hi.’” Join us, won’t you? That’s one ringy dingy, two ringy dingy….