Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My annoyance with the telephone (and vote for better letters!)

Does the ring of the telephone fill you with anticipation or does it evoke dread?  Does it tell you, 

Hey, pick me up, I’m a surprise, like a birthday present… under the wrapping of this ringtone is something that could change your life!

Or does it tell you, 

Hey you, stop what you’re doing and pay attention to me, NOW… don’t glance up and then look away!... put your pen down, Mister, slam on the brakes and notice me!!

If someone was waiting for a romantic call or for a word that grandpa survived surgery or that our client is ready to make a deal, we’re grateful for the phone on these special occasions.  We can relax knowing the news, when available, will be immediate.  Soon enough, we’ll see what path lies ahead for us and those we love.

Yet most of the time we are not hanging in mid-air waiting for a call to help us land.  We are doing life somewhere.  Without so much as a warning from the window of our guest walking up the garden path to knock on our door, the phone blurts out, slicing the silence of the room, shouting that we are wanted… now!
I read that the philosopher, H. L. Mencken, once said that the ring of a distracting telephone made him “wishing heartily that Alexander Graham Bell had been run over by an ice wagon at the age of 4.”  Sometimes I do too.  Not that I wish the demise of the brilliant Bell, but there’s something peculiar about the phone that requires instant attention.

Would Bell have dared his invention had he known of the future cell phone?  The cell, that ubiquitous tether to the world, that device in our hands that reminds us again and again (after we pony up a large monthly bill) that we are wanted, needed at the mall, the ice cream shop, while commuting the kids to school, writing our memoir, strolling in the park.  The cell pretends we are celebrities, making our personal narrative available to the public without so much as dodging a paparazzi-like ambush of call, texts, and the other tools of smartness on our phones.

At home, I screen my calls.  My answering machine says so.  People ask why we don’t use Caller ID.  We do.  But Caller ID is inconsistently useless.  

“Out of area” doesn’t help.  

“Michigan” tells me little.  

And “blocked” numbers?  “Blocked” numbers tell people in a warm cheery ringtone, “Pick me up, don’t worry, I value transparency and respect your time!”  Uh huh.  

People comment on our boldness to screen our calls with our answering machine.  

How about that?  “Boldness.”  

I know some people have a different affection for the phone than I.  Their response to our “boldness” tells me something about them… Are these the people who feel ignored and need the ambush-effect of a phone call?  Or do they think it social rudeness to not pick up the invisible visitor?  Is it more rude to interrupt a quiet, hard-working day of another?  Or more rude to ignore the interrupter?  Cannot a call diverted to the answering machine say, 

You’re valuable, truly.  Doing what I’m doing in my space with the gifts I’ve been given is more important in this moment than talking to you… is that okay?

The telephone, for me, is a convenience for the most urgent communications; yet not much of a social device.  I have several reasons for this and they are all personal.  

First, verbal communication is a limited thing.  We are told that most communication comes through body language, eye-contact and tone, even more than the words we use.  In the performing arts, we learn that the eyes are the most important communicator on the stage.  If the eyes are unbelieving or disengaged, then communication is lost no matter the words we use.  

I’ve caught hints of people on social calls more interested in being “on” the phone than in having a conversation. I picture their eyes wondering who knows where, pretending to be a good multi-tasker.    

Now my second point: different kinds of discourse.

With the added work to translate information through the telephone, two different, but related kinds of discourse are required to navigate a conversation.  One is rational discourse.  If someone is good at thinking through ideas, then this is not an issue.  However, if you are not good at thinking on your feet, this creates a disadvantage which does not allow the other modes of communicating, like a face-to-face encounter, may give: pausing, glancing, grabbing salt and pepper shakers on the lunchroom table and making a schemata.  The immediacy of the technology subtly miscommunicates the immediacy of a conversation, give an instant answer.  Since I’m quick on my feet with rational discourse, this isn’t as much of an issue if people want to talk ideas or give an update. 

However, most of the time, the telephone also includes the other kind of thinking: relational discourse.

Relational discourse means navigating the relationship happening on the phone, reading what the other person is “really” saying and how they are connecting with you personally.  For me to engage relational discourse, I need what the phone doesn’t give: the body language and eye contact (and, no, skype doesn’t give eye-contact either because you look into the eyes of the video image, not the person).  Some are better wired for relational discourse on the phone, like our dog-sitter, Ben.  He tells me he prefers the phone because he over-thinks the other signals so much that he can’t hear what another is saying.  “Why did they raise their eyebrow?” he asks.  Better to talk without all the bodily distractions. 
Here’s a practical example: how do you interrupt on the phone?  To know when someone is finished with a point so they can be adequately interrupted without offense is something I need in conversation.  I often end up misjudging their point’s conclusion and interrupting repeatedly, talking over them, pausing, frustrated.  People do this to me too.  It bugs.  I’d like to lift a hand, like a crossing-guard, or nod like I’m already getting the point so please stop rambling, or a glance at the wrist watch to indicate I’m bored and have other valuable things to do or find a distraction nearby to change the subject, “Oh, did you see that clown go into the pizza shop?!!”
Or when I’m monologuing, how do I know if the other person is really interested?  They could just be the typically defeated suburban husband, like Mr. Incredible,

Uh huh, good, good…

No, Bob, not good! shouts back Elastigirl.
Third, you have people who master telephone conversation, working words and silences to get what they want.  Some passive aggressive, I bet, love the phone, poking their heads into distant lives via 10,000 miles of phone wire, people that we try to limit our time with if they’re to have any relationship with us at all.  Do they know they are passive aggressive?  Do they even know this is a problem?  They move like salesmen, motioning you to agree or say something before you know what you’ve said.  They play with the silences to get you to talk.  “Well, I am amazed that they said that to you!” 

Inner-monologue: No, I’m not!  Why did I just say that?

Likewise, I have the dilemma of telling people I don’t like their inquiry: it’s too personal, it’s none of their business, it’s boring.  Body language, eye contact can speak volumes in this, leaving your disagreement in the conversation ambiguous.  Ambiguity is good: it gives the other a chance to reflect on what they are doing without being call on the carpet.  However, on the phone you’ve gotta say it outright: “Um, I don’t want to talk about that.”  Awkward silence.  Leaving no doubt as to where you stand, deadening a relationship that could have been resuscitated had it not been the telephones damned demand for bluntness.

Talk on the phone is for me like climbing a tree with one hand.  Awkward, risky, and I walk away with scratches.
Maybe this is a guy thing, at least in American culture.  I know more women prefer the phone than men, though I know some men who would rather phone than write an email and women who prefer email to the phone.  Yet, in general, women tend to do their socializing on the phone more than men, having, perhaps, that sensitive awareness to understand tone and words, to skillfully climb a tree with one hand.
Now, for those who prefer the phone over email, let’s make a case for the written word.  I prefer email to the phone. If my phone represented half of the emails I receive, I’d get nothing done. I’ve heard many say that the phone is more personal and "old-fashioned" and email impersonal.  But is this so?  Telephones "old fashioned"?  Maybe for an older living generation but not in history.  Emails are newer, but at least these are things I can save.  I wish I had more personal notes from my grandfather and mother, who have migrated to another country from where no phone lines are long enough to preserve a talking relationship.  Phone conversations easily slip into small talk which are, in my opinion, relational but not often that personal, like the chatter in the foyer after a Sunday church service.
Before electronic technology, nobody had telephones or email.  Communication was personal meetings and letters.  Telephoning is like a personal meeting on a diet, reducing eye-contact and body language.  Emails are still letter writing.  While we often write emails too hastily and lose the art of crafting words, let’s not blame the technology for that.  Let’s blame a hurried society instead.  Emails are the same as letter sent on the pony express; now the pony is the web.  As long as the recipient doesn’t demand an immediate reply, I’ll take an email, usually, as much as a mailed letter.
Letters allow tone and words.  A good metaphor can move the imagination as easily as body language, if not more. Written words also add complete thoughts, uninterrupted.  When someone gets to monologuing in a letter, you step away and re-engage their manta after tea.  And as one crafts his ability to write, he can also add in details not otherwise afforded by telephone conversations.  Writing requires you say what you mean (if you are not hasty), mull over ideas, and protects us from inappropriate word choices.  Writing requires the reader to sit and ponder the carefully chosen phrases, the reading between the lines.  Email, if done well, can be catalogued next to the fine art of letter writing, minus the personal marks of handwriting. Telephoning has no tradition prior the Bell’s technology (unless praying to saints counts) and was not an art on which civilization was built.  Letters, however, were.
So take your pick or choose them all.  You may feel about the written word as I do the telephone.  So be it.  Writing doesn’t come easily for me simply because I’m a writer.  I started writing and became a writer, though I was raised in a family of telephoners.  I’ll stick to personal meetings and crafting letters.  And when the local college offers a course in “creative telephoning” I’ll sign up.  Until then, I’ll screen my calls.
May Bell rest in peace, having died from pernicious anemia at age 80 instead of that ice wagon at age four.  I’m thankful for his technology and for the choice to disdain it too.
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