An excerpt of this column originally appeared as a special to the Kenosha News, Sunday Mornings With Basil Willis, April 8, 2012.
Much like the handwritten letter, the art of the phone call is being lost. We don’t use the phone much anymore. When I say “we” I am talking about The Herd, but specifically I’m referring to people I know.
I mean, we use phones all day. I have one next to me right now and will stop typing the instant it makes a specific sound or sequence of vibrations. I have instructed my phone to notify me of certain events and I will stop whatever I’m doing to respond to my digital
master assistant . What I will not do is answer a voice call. We’re using them, or being used by them, just not for speaking to each other.
I constantly use apps on my phone, but the app I like least is the one for which the device derives its name; the “phone” app, which requires synchronous human interaction. It’s not that I don’t like talking to people, sometimes it is necessary and even enjoyable, but most of the time it isn’t efficient because I’m too busy managing myriad other communication channels.
Social media has filled the void for many friends and relatives I don’t talk to on a regular basis. People I might see once a year, or every few years, are in my thoughts. I can watch their kids grow up or congratulate them on the big promotion or the low golf score.
For me the most personal and immediate form of non-voice communication is SMS, or texting as the kids are calling it now. Texting is genius. It allows talking without the formalities. Just send the information that needs to be sent. I don’t have to ask the recipient about their day when I’m reminding them to not forget the milk. I can send a link to a map or web site. Or I can send a smile.
Ironically, there are times when texting can be more intimate than a call. I’ve texted friends I haven’t heard from in a while asking how they are and have had some very open and honest responses that I don’t think I would have heard on a voice call. There is an element of safety and anonymity in SMS that for some people lets them confess what they normally might not.
If we retool Maslow’s work into a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of communications, texting would have to be at the top now. It has become the surest way of reaching me immediately. I can respond during a meeting, or while I’m on the phone with my wife. I never, ever text while driving, but with voice commands I can now tell my phone to do it for me.
Video chat is now widely available, which unlike all the other new forms of communication, is a huge step backwards. I have FaceTime and Skype on my phone, but both are worse than just voice alone. Now, in addition to pretending to be interested in a conversation, I have to look interested too. And be clothed. For most calls, anyway.
All sarcasm aside, if I had to be away from Beth for an extended period of time, we would totally be video calling.
Our house still has a landline, which is an ironic term because at the end of the line there’s a wireless device. We use it to talk to elders who might not be able to hear us well on a cell phone, or for people who want to call “the house” and speak to either or both of us. In stark contrast to cell phones, the venerable landline is communal. We also keep our landline for any form that requires us to enter a phone number, so all the associated phone spam gets funneled away from our cell phones.
My wife reminds me that some of the best times we had were on the phone when we were dating long distance. While they did ease the pain of not being together, I have a distinctly different recollection of those calls. Beth lives in the same tech world I do but still enjoys a good, long phone chat with her girls. Her and her mother, despite living three miles from each other, can effortlessly pass an entire afternoon on the phone.
When Beth is talking to anyone besides her mother, she is an expert at controlling the conversation. She can keep someone on the phone as long as she wants, and conversely can end the call on a dime. She does it nicely, but in my head I always hear her say, “I’ve been blabbering the whole time and I get the feeling you’re about to say something, so let me let you go.” Click.
The exception to phone calls is the one I make to my mom at least once a week, and would do so even if she knew how to text. There’s something about hearing her voice that can’t be replaced by little dialog bubbles under a piece of glass. I can rest easier hearing that she sounds ok and isn’t trying to bamboozle me. And when I threaten to put bring her back to Wisconsin and put her in a home if she doesn’t quit skydiving, she can hear that I’m only half-joking.