Whilst sprawled out on my couch on a lazy Sunday evening, I received a phone call from someone I had recently met. As I watched my cell phone light up and buzz on the table, I went into panic mode. Why is this person calling me? Who in their right mind calls people they barely know? What on earth do we have to talk about? What do I do? Pick-up? But what do I say? Should I hit ‘decline’ button? Let it go to voicemail? Throw my phone in the toilet? Help!
Naturally, I chose the cowardly route and sat there staring at the buzzing object like it was some poisonous creature on the verge of attacking me at any second. Once I saw a message indicating that I had received a new voicemail, I wasn’t sure whether to breath a sigh of relief, or go into panic mode phase two. The message itself was perfectly innocuous, the person just wanted to say hi and chat. But this was even more perplexing to me; what does this person mean by ‘chat’? Is there a hidden agenda here? Chat about what exactly? How does one proceed in ‘chatting’, with a near stranger, on a telephone?
After pacing around for a minute or two, I eventually put my game face on, repeated out aloud c’mon, you can do this, took a few deep breaths and tapped ‘call back’. A little while later, it hit me: not only did I just have a phone conversation but it was over two hours long. With someone who isn’t a family member, or a close friend, or a customer service employee, or an on-hold soundtrack machine (with whom you can have very profound discussions with by the way). An actual phone conversation!
I am well aware of the fact that I’m marveling at this feat, as well as the inexplicable stage fright I endured in order to accomplish it, makes me sound like a shrieking thirteen-year-old trapped in the body of a twenty-seven-year-old. Whilst I can’t deny my juvenile tendencies, I know I am not alone in realizing the rarity of engaging in a non-essential, casual phone interaction.
Though I’m not exactly sure if I’m complaining about the lost art of phone conversations, or simply acknowledging it for the first time. Like many, my phone conversations are predominantly limited to essential work related communication, and interactions with my immediate family and close friends. For most friends and acquaintances, text messages or Facebook suffice, and for professional contacts email is the standard channel. Indeed, many full-fledged adults here in the U.S. find non-family phone calls intrusive, rude, awkward and often unnecessary. Why disrupt what I’m doing to ask me what I’m doing? Why go through painful small talk, half-hearted attempts at life updates, when you really have one main question to ask me? Am I busy? Of course I’m busy!
And though my panic mode had a lot to do with the potential awkwardness of a phone conversation with an acquaintance, it was more to do with the uncontrolled nature of this seemingly foreign medium. Because it is so uncontrolled, combined with the absence of vital non-verbal cues, I’m forced to be fully present. To actually listen to what the other person is saying, to hear intonations and breathing patterns, to try ascertain what the background noise is and what they are doing, to use my imagination to understand this abstract voice, as I would a human being in my presence. This is all a lot of hard work to engage in, and isn’t the point of modern technology to make things easier and more efficient?
Yet phone calls never used to seem so foreign. There was indeed a time, not so long ago when the sound of an analogue phone ringing was exhilarating. When communication through the wired, insulated copper circuits and bulky earpieces was a crucial form of expression, exploration and intimacy. Whether one was calling a best friend or courageously dialing up the potential boy/girl friend, the process was the same. Picking up the earpiece, hearing the gentle fuzz preceding the dial tone, pressing, or turning, the numbers as memorized or written down, waiting for the ‘brrriinnggggg, brrriiinngggg’, holding your breath and preparing what to say to whomever picks up the phone.
However the conversation went, one thing was certain – you were fully there in the present moment and for that period of time your only focus was communicating with that individual. And remember sitting down to actually write a letter? When a handwritten letter was enough to make you smile for days? During my teenage years in boarding school a significant amount of homework time was spent crafting letters to each other, which would then be handed to a delivery person during the ten-minute