Is The Telephone Dying Out?

16/05/2011 12:09 | Updated 22 May 2015

I was part of the first cohort of one-time teenage girls for whom the internet began to nudge the phone aside. My family got our first email account (yes, 'our' - I sweetly trusted that my parents and siblings would not read the messages that weren't addressed to me, even as I cheerfully read theirs) in the mid-90s, when I was 15. One of my school friends had one as well, and thus we changed our routine from the post-school landline (not that we called it a landline, since there was no alternative) debrief to a daily post-school email in which we discussed key gossip, our homework assignments, and what cookies she anticipated having in her lunch the next day (her mother made some spectacular cookies). The PC instead of the phone seamlessly became my first after-school stop.

But I never envisioned that my new passion for online communication would eclipse my old one so much that sight of my phone ringing, for the most part, induces a feeling of dread. There are still a few people (my parents, my boyfriend) from whom I am delighted to receive an unexpected phone call. There are far more people from whom a spontaneous ring seems like an act of utmost social awkwardness and intrusion. Or else it feels like a reason to panic: so many of us now only resort to actually using their handset to speak if it's because something has gone so spectacularly wrong that relaying the information via text message seems inappropriate (but one survey last year found that nearly 50% of people have dumped someone via text message, so it seems we're getting over that, too).

Whereas I once prided myself on my skill for delivering entertaining telephone chat (aided, in some cases, by making reference notes beforehand), I now feel so out of practice - and feel that so often the people on the other end of the line are so out of practice, too - that I often will miss a call intentionally in order to ring back only once I've braced myself for it. The particular sinking feeling you get at the end of a bad, uncomfortable phone call is not something that ever happens at the conclusion of an email, which – whatever the conclusion – can always be ended with a smart salutation.

Indeed, the digital made us amenable to constant communication – and even to public communication of the kind of exchange that used to be incredibly intimate (thanks, Facebook). But it's also gotten us in to the habit of pre-moderating and carefully controlling all of our communication. We may be writing a cringe-inducing sweet nothing to someone on Twitter but in even the few seconds it takes to compose the 140 characters we're getting more opportunity to take care, to consider how we express ourselves, than a telephone call can ever offer (unless we conduct our phone calls with long, awkward pauses).

And so the thought carrying on a real-time conversation is downright scary, even though we're all armed with telephones that we carry at all times. Which only makes it worse: the old-fashioned excuse that you couldn't return a call for hours because you were out and about it completely obsolete, unless you can claim to have been to some kind of epic theatre event ('Sorry, I was watching the entire Wagner Ring cycle').

Being a telephone refusenik is nothing to be ashamed of, but it does need to be finessed: if you tell people up front that you don't like to speak on the phone, they tend to behave as if you're a bit mad (I've tried). But if you train them not to call you by responding to their phone messages via email or text message, it's frequently possible to make a smooth transition to a life in which you can always switch your ringer off. But even as I don't mind that we seem to be on the verge of bidding goodbye to the blower, we need to be careful. In her recent prize-winning (and brilliant) novel A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan envisions a future in which people typically conduct long conversations while sitting next to each other - in a meeting, at a bar - because actual in-person utterances are just too awkward. We're not there yet. But only not quite.


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