Communicating in the Twenty-First Century

September 2013


I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when there were rotary phones.  If you put “rotary phone” into Google, you’ll come up with a lovely picture of a black phone with a rotary dial.[1]  That’s what our phone looked like. Our phone was plugged into the wall, and you could roam while you talked only as far as the coiled cord would allow – that was before wireless phones, and well before cell phones. I didn’t feel deprived; it was all I knew.

Talking on the telephone was the most natural thing in the world; it was the next best thing to being in person. I would sometimes have hours-long conversations with friends, at times getting off the phone only because my ear had gotten tired.

When the phone rang, someone in my family would pick it up. There was no issue of not picking up the phone because we didn’t want to talk to so-and-so.  It was before caller ID; we never knew who was calling until we heard the person on the other end of the line.  (Luckily, it was also before the incessant phone solicitations and marketing we have come to know and hate.) And if we called someone and they didn’t pick up, we would just try again later, since there was no voicemail option yet either.

But the sound quality was excellent (unlike my cell phone). And you could discuss whatever needed to be discussed in one smooth conversation – so, for example, making plans with someone didn’t require endless back-and-forth, with waiting for the other person to respond to your latest text message or email, or vice versa.

So when I called my daughter, then well into her twenties and living in New York City, over 250 miles away from home, and she told me she hated talking on the phone, you can imagine how I felt. What??  She might as well have said, “I don’t want any more real, almost-as-good-as-in-person contact.”

That was several years ago, by which time there was all the communication technology we’ve all gotten used to – cell phones with texting, and email (and, of course, the ever-available blimps with messages, in a pinch).  My daughter explained why she didn’t like talking on the phone – it wasn’t that she didn’t want any real contact with me – and I’ve since heard her sentiments expressed by other people in her age cohort, and some people outside her age cohort as well. For example, shortly after my daughter said that, I read something by Matt Yglesias, a well-known liberal blogger about my daughter’s age, saying that he doesn’t like talking on the phone.  And I just recently read a good blog post by Jen McCreight (“Why are you calling my texting device?”) beautifully explaining why she too hates talking on the phone.

And here’s the thing: I can understand how they feel.  They say the phone makes them uncomfortable because you don’t have time to think about a response to what the person on the other end of the line (or “line,” nowadays) has just said.  Just like in a face-to-face conversation, a phone conversation requires pretty immediate responses; it would be awkward to have the kinds of pauses that would allow people to compose just what they want to say in response and just how they want to say it.  That kind of pause is what we have when we write – as in this essay, or, say, texting or email.  I can understand that, because at times I’ve felt the same way. And I too love the relaxed feeling with emails or text messages that I can take my time (within reason) to respond, because the other person doesn’t know just when I read his email or text message to me nor what other obligations I might have to take care of that would prevent me from responding right away.  I like that “shield.”  I like that privacy, and the freedom it affords me.

I can also understand the feeling that phone calls are a bit of an imposition – or, as Jen McCreight put it, “Getting an unexpected phone call is like someone saying ‘Drop whatever you’re doing – you must interact with me right now.’” Back when the phone was really the only viable alternative to what we now call “snail mail,” it didn’t even occur to me (or most other people, I would imagine) that a phone call was an imposition – it was ever so much quicker and more immediate than writing letters; it was a conversation, which most of us enjoyed.  But now that there are other options that are quick and pretty easy – and that do allow you to respond when you are ready to and not before – it puts the forlorn phone call in a different (and less flattering) light.

And, as I described in The Art of Conversation,” there have been times (before caller ID appeared on the scene) when I’ve felt ensnared by a phone call with a serious  (and boring) “talker,” spending virtually all my mental energy simply trying to figure out a polite means of escape. So, yes, I do see the disadvantages of the phone, and the advantages of other means of communication that give one more control.

Control, I believe, is the big advantage of these newer communication technologies. Because of the lack of immediacy, technologies like email and texting allow the user more control over the situation – the ability to control the rate of response, for example, since the other person doesn’t know what you’re doing and just when you read her text message or email.  And more control over what you say, since you have more time to figure out what you want to say and how best to say it.  Especially for “conversations” that you anticipate will be difficult, email allows you to compose what you want to say, to revise it if deemed necessary, to have another trusted person read it through and give feedback – sort of like writing an essay, where you care how it’s worded. It’s much harder to make it “come out right” verbally, on the spot. You can compose what you want to say with these newer communication technologies; you can’t compose on the phone.

So there’s a tradeoff between the pleasures of immediacy that a good phone conversation can bring and the security of the lack of immediacy and the resulting control that these newer communication technologies give us. Texting and email allow you to keep other people “at arm’s length” – to keep them just far enough away that you have the space to better control how your “conversation” goes, but not so far away that you essentially aren’t having a conversation at all.[2] A conversation is by nature immediate, with both the pleasures and the risks that that immediacy entails.  With the ability to create some “distance” as we “converse,” by using these newer technologies, we trade in that immediacy for some measure of control and thus “safety.”

There’s a certain irony in the modern trend away from the phone to these other communication technologies.  The telephone was originally intended as a technology for allowing people to converse as if they were physically together  (minus the visual cues).  The sense of immediacy was kind of the point.  But while such immediacy can often be wonderful, I suspect most of us have found that it can sometimes be excruciatingly awkward.

The trick, I suppose, is to find a good balance between immediacy and control – or, perhaps more accurately, to figure out when we want more of one and when we want more of the other.  When we talk to someone face to face – when we just have a conversation without any technological intervention – we have no more control than when we’re on the phone (although we do have more information, being able to discern facial expressions and body language). Most people, I would guess, are not so in need of control that they would prefer to omit all in-person interactions from their lives.  I certainly wouldn’t. But there definitely are times – and people – that make me grateful for the newer communication technologies that are now available; and I have often availed myself of them, keeping someone “at arm’s length” because that was more comfortable for me.

But, of course, I suspect that I’ve been on the receiving end of that as well, being kept at arm’s length. And from that perspective these new communication technologies look somewhat less appealing. After all, one person’s control can be another person’s lack of control.  So the next time I rejoice in the control I have over just when I respond to that text message or email I got, perhaps I should remember how it feels when I have to wait for a response to a text message or email I sent.  What I really want is a technology that will give me meta-control, allowing me to control when I have control and when I have immediacy.

Ah, but there’s no free lunch, as the saying goes – and this is true of technology in general. There are usually downsides to technological advances that we realize only later.  Who knew, for example, that the green revolution would result in a global inundation of toxic chemicals and an evolutionary war between humans (with their chemicals) and pests (with their ability to rapidly evolve and adapt)? Who knew that the automobile would lead to urban and suburban sprawl and a massive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Who knew that the invention of television would eventually lead to Fox “News” with its huge propaganda and misinformation machine? You get the idea. All these technologies were applauded, and rightly so. They have brought huge benefits to people.  But those benefits have come at a cost – sometimes a large cost (a subject for another essay, perhaps).

I don’t actually think that the costs associated with communications technological advances are so large, however; I don’t think they exceed the benefits. But the next time I find myself waiting for a response to my text message or email, I may reconsider that assessment.

[1] Unless, of course, Wikipedia changes this entry by the time you go there.

[2]  Although if one or both participants in an email or text exchange take too long (e.g., over a week) to respond, the sense of a “conversation” is likely to be lost.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s