Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hiding Behind The Telephone

Blondie--"Hanging On The Telephone" (mp3)

My daughter, who rightly claims to be inspiration for untold numbers of my blog posts, did it again the other night when she asked, "Do you remember when the phone used to ring and we didn't know who was calling?"

Actually, I do remember that, but I guess I'm surprised that she does.  The whole Caller ID on the family phone morphing into individual phones where 98% of the calls we receive show up with the caller's name attached to them because they are in our "contacts list" has happened far more quickly than I realized.  Partly, that is because we didn't get Caller ID until very late.  Partly that is because it happened so fast.

About six years ago, when a friend of mine's marriage was in trouble, one thing that struck me was the role that the telephone played.  No, there weren't infidelities discovered or anything sordid like that.  The situation was far more simple: when they dropped their home phone in favor of individual cell phones, none of us ever called her again.  We called him. She disappeared from the social network, though she may not have even missed it.

Before that, when we didn't know who would answer the phone, we might get a random question from her or a diatribe against my friend or a chewing out or a pleasant conversation or even a child's voice.  Just like in any other home.  In the larger phone world, when we answered the phone in those old days of it's-ringing-and-somebody-better-answer-it-could-be-important, we might get a telemarketer or a relative or a drunk dial or a creditor or a parent or an invitation to go somewhere or a free plot in the local cemetery.  The world was calling, and there was no way to know which small corner of it was on the other end of the line.

Now I find myself more and more irritated by almost any phone call that comes at the wrong time, because it feels like a real inconvenience, like they are supposed to know that I'm sitting in a restaurant and it's a bad time to call.  I think to myself with that same irritation, 'Why didn't they just send me a text?'  I tell my family to text me at work, or to call, let it ring a few times, hang up, and then call back if it is really important. 

Because there is that obvious other side of the discussion, that the phone that used to be in the house, at first only in one room, at first maybe with a party line, and whose rings we would miss if we weren't home, until we added the answering machines, and then the Caller ID and all of that, those phones are on us all the time now.  And as a society, we are still in the process of figuring out how to manage that reality.  But the very fact that we think we can manage it shows how far we have come and that we have been given an easy way out, a way to avoid what may be immediately unpleasant or complicated.

There is a loss here, a real loss.  Probably few of us miss it, though, because life is much easier and less confrontational when we know who we are dealing with before we answer and, therefore, can decide whether or not to answer.  When we can get prepared and call back.  When we can share the potential situation with whomever we're with and solicit advice or follow the group-think and ignore the call altogether. 

SIDE REALITY: even though every call is logged and even though we are reminded of its occurrence and continuing existence, we still pretend that we didn't get it, when useful. 

We cheat ourselves, and we especially cheat our children, when we opt out of this randomness, though.  That, to me, is the greatest danger of becoming a society that can hide behind a phone.

We create the great pretense that we do have control, that we can manage, that protection is always better than exposure, that order somehow controls chaos. One need only revisit Newton's 2nd Law, or a lawn after being gone on a 2-week vacation, to remind us that all things tend toward chaos, and quickly.  But, like most things, we act with the best of intentions.  Time is precious.  Who wants to waste it doing something like getting roped into a political survey or listening to a long-lost friend who only calls when he's drunk?  Who wants unknown people calling our children (or, taking all of the fun out of the telephone, who wants our children calling unknown people?  Is your refrigerator running?)

Part of what I'm feeling, of course, is what happens when we start to get older, that Seinfeldian concept of "I survived; let's see if you can, too."  Having gone through it myself, I like the idea that a boy asking a girl out (or vice-versa) has to risk a parent answering a phone, might even, later in the relationship, have to deal with that parent's anger or disappointment.  I think it was educational that when I owed money that I couldn't pay, I actually had to talk to someone on the phone about it.  It made me never want to do it again.  I've taken those awful calls that seem to come in the middle of the night on a phone that couldn't be turned off.  I've had to deal with unexpected anger from unexpected people at unexpected times.

Not anymore. Now that phone in my pocket tells me that I can do things my way and that nothing will interrupt the schedule I've planned for myself.  Unless I want it to.  Now I want people to be at the other end when I want them to be and not there when I don't.  Yes, I'm living it just like you, but something doesn't feel right about it.


susan said...

At least once a week I leave my phone at home (or at least inside) if I go out. Usually it's because I'm reading somewhere else-the deck, the park, Barnes&Noble (by the way, I just finished The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes...very slender book but a good read).Since I don't wear a watch, I'm not even aware of what time it is..very liberating. Now I feel like I at least have some control over my phone rather than the other way around.But I'm also much more aware (read annoyed) by how attached other people are to the device.

Answering Services said...

Mobile phones serve the utmost importance as years pass and technology improves. However, sticking to the traditional ways, like having a telephones, is still worth doing too. Good post!:)