... feminist, atheist, autistic academic and historic narrowboater ...
Likes snooker, beer, tea, rivets and solitude, and is strangely fascinated by the cinema organ.
And there might be something about railways.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Don't call me...

.... And I won't call you either.

One of the nice things about being a grown up, I am belatedly discovering, is that it's all right not to eat things just because you don't like them (no one can make you any more), and it's possible to say 'actually, I prefer not to use the telephone.'

For maybe seventy years, the phone was a necessary evil. But now, thanks to email and the wonders of SMS, it simply isn't necessary any more. (I always say, and it is nothing less than the truth, that without the advent of email, I would not have the career I have now. I simply couldn't have made the contacts if I had had to phone people up.) Evil? Well, not literally. But certainly I always found it oppressive. I hated making calls (the idea that you were imposing into someone's life), and I hated receiving them - being expected to jump to it the instant someone, be they friend, stranger or salesman, wanted my attention. But it wasn't just this seething resentment. There is something very strange and unnatural about a phone conversation. It is a conversation, and yet not a conversation. The visual cues which contribute so much to communication are totally absent. Now, I know this is also true of written communication, but the thing is, we know that's not a conversation; we approach it differently and make allowances for its inadequacies. It also has compensating advantages. A phone conversation on the other hand, is merely an inadequate conversation, an emasculated, shadow of one.

People say that with emails etc there's a danger of firing off a reply before you've thought about it properly. And so there is, if you're careless. But on the phone you have no choice. You have to reply instantly, to fill the void of silence. Under that sort of pressure, how easy it is to say the wrong thing, or for it to come across differently from how you meant it, especially when there is no kind or amused look to soften the blow. And everyone must surely know how heartrendingly frustrating it is to have a row on the phone, how hollow and fruitless.

But, as I said, necessary no more. In fact we will look back on the era of long-distance aural communication as a brief anomoly between periods when the written word was the only way to communicate over long distances.* In the nineteenth century there were up to seven postal collections and deliveries per day - scarcely different from emails pinging back and forth.

The written note gives us time to think, to formulate our thoughts, moderate our reactions, and craft our communication. It's no substitute for a face to face conversation, but it doesn't pretend to be. But unlike the phone call, it's a useful complement to it.

Also, people worry that 'text speak' is killing the art of letter writing. But - execrable as it can be - it isn't; the telephone was the greatest threat to that. Email and even text may actually, in a small way, be reviving it. People had lost the art of writing elegant English long before early SMS required them to abbreviate everything; those who did have that facility certainly didn't lose it as soon as the Nokia was in their hand; they (we) are the ones who write 1000 character texts complete with correct punctuation.

And while that may not be a very elegant rounding off, I must leave it there, and go and have some dinner. Early start tomorrow - we really are going to go and check on Chertsey, but it's going to have to be a day trip.

*Stephen Fry, I think it was, pointed this out.


  1. I know what you mean. I am happier writing than speaking. Less intrusion and more considered.

  2. I think it was also Stephen Fry (possibly as part of the same point) who likened a ringing telephone to someone banging at your desk repeating 'talk to me talk to me' without any reference to what you might be engaged in at the time.

    Emails and texts can be dealt with when you choose - although I admittedly find writing a text on a phone slow & frustrating, it's normally still often the best option...

  3. Jaqueline Almdale3 October 2010 at 04:36

    Bravo!! Good point indeed. I love the non-intrusiveness of email too, with its ability to reach out for nearly free to anyone on the planet when I choose, and for them to respond—or not—when they so choose. I am academic advisor at a University. I advise 650 students who earn their degrees online and never come to campus. They live all over the world, in every time zone, and I develop an advisor/advisee relationship with them via email.

    I think especially in this day and age with cell phones, that they are a tool designed to keep social, marketing, and political tabs on us. I refuse to be tethered to one. I have a land line and I don’t use voice messaging or call waiting (which I have renamed call rude). I don’t know about the U.K. but in the U.S. law mandated in 2000 that all new cell phones have a chip built in allowing the carrier to be tracked by GPS—ostensively for emergency situations only (since the Patriot Act I am more suspicious than ever of the Government and Madison Avenue corporations. They seem to want to find us and riffle through our thoughts and behaviors to see if one is a threat to the control of the government or find me and sell me something I don’t need or want).

    Speech requires no forethought at all hence the saying, "Light travels faster than sound and this why some folks appear bright until they open their mouth." On the other hand writing requires thoughtfulness in order to communicate effectively. Texting is the exception: I teach English for the University and grade Junior University writing portfolios. Students have 2 hours to respond in handwritten essay form, to a randomly assigned four paragraph prompt. I recently evaluated one in which the only thing the student wrote was TLDNR; (text-speak for Too Long Did Not Read.) My final grade for his efforts? F4U.

  4. Once upon a time, we would live close to everyone we ever knew and could reassure ourselves of that human contact with a glance, word or touch. Now we often live a long way apart and the phone is a useful stand-in for that contact. Yes, an e-mail is more considered, yet it's untrustworthy for that very reason. You edit what you really want to say, insincerity can creep in. The immediacy of spoken thoughts, flawed and impetuous as they can sometimes be, are more real, more human and more welcome for it, in my opinion.

  5. That's a good point Carrie, although I guess it's still easier to lie on the phone if one is so minded than in person. I just find it quite excruciating, so I'm glad there's an alternative.