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The New Telephone Culture

Posted Mar 21 2011 8:31am

One of the most dramatic cultural changes in the lifetimes of those who read this blog is the fading of the telephone from our lives – at least for its original intended use.

I had been thinking about how little I use it these days when, yesterday, in The New York Times, Pamela Paul reported how the phone has fallen into disuse as a voice instrument:

“It’s at the point where when the phone does ring — and it’s not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter,” she writes, “my first thought is: 'What’s happened?' 'What’s wrong?' My second thought is: 'Isn’t it weird to just call like that? Out of the blue? With no emailed warning?'”

She had me hooked right there because I've had precisely that thought on the rare occasion my phone rings.

It used to be so much simpler. When I lived here in Portland, Oregon, as a kid, our telephone number was FIllmore 2039 – just six digits. When we moved to Marin County in 1956, there were not even dial phones. To speak with anyone – in town or across the country - I picked up the receiver, an operator asked for the number I wanted and she connected us.

How quaint. When I was talking at teenage length with a girlfriend in those days, I remember my mother hounding me to get off the telephone so she could use it. Phones and teenagers – then and for many decades following – were a big bone of contention in families.

Today, each family member has his and her own cell phone but we hardly speak with one another.

Skipping over the many years when all professional business was conducted by telephone and I spent many long hours keeping up with friends by phone, nowadays there are only half a dozen people I call without first arranging an appointment to do so via email.

No one told me this is the new telephone etiquette; it just kind of fell into place over the past few years. In Ms. Paul's Times story, Miss Manners says we have finally caught up with her point of view:

“'Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,' Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation.

“'I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.'”

I see her point and I seem to recall sometimes being irritated with the ringing telephone but my long-distance friendships thrived on lengthy phone conversations. There is also a lot to be said for near daily phone calls with closest friends even when we live in the same cities. I kind of miss that.

Even so, cell phones – mine, anyway – are so irritating that I'm almost grateful few people call. The damned clock is always 11 minutes behind real time, voice mail notification is often a day late and the phone is rarely in the room where I am when it rings.

(Actually, I blame that last item on women's clothing designers. If you can find a pair of pants in the color, style and fabric you want that also fits, there are no pockets.)

Most people use their phones now almost exclusively for texting, email, web surfing and games. Not me.

I don't have anything to say to anyone in a text message that I would bother using that teeny, slow keyboard. I don't need to check email so frequently that it can't wait until I get to my laptop. I don't want to read websites on a miniature screen and in general, computer games don't interest me.

Maybe it's a case of getting old and not keeping up. So be it.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mickey Rogers: Music

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