Reach Out and—Text Somebody?

(Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay)

Nothing dates you faster than the lineage of your communications devices. One of my best childhood presents was a toy switchboard: I sat for hours, plugging in different lines and feeling the rush of power as they lit up, connecting people. To this day, my favorite quote is E.M. Forster’s direction for life: “Only connect.”

The switchboard also made me think of Ernestine (played by Lily) Tomlin, the phone company operator who snorted in amusement, fingers darting into her cleavage as she counted “one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy,” then pranked some power figure. Phones were places of daring as well as sociability. Kids in big families fought bitterly for telephone time, and lucky little girls received pink princess phones with long, twirly cords.

We just had the family phone, glossy black rotary; I can still hear the dial whir back, exhausted, after spinning all the way from zero. Telephone manners were taught, and did not always involve scrupulous honesty about the adult’s inability to “come to the phone.” The Cooperman residence—I have never once answered the phone with those words. I rather miss the stately elegance of such an announcement, the added layer of identity. But what I miss more is the telephone’s excitement. I never hung on the phone for hours the way other girls did, chatting idly while they painted their toenails or flipped through a magazine, and making prank calls at slumber parties mortified me. That deejay knew we were twelve. Then came the dating games, which were absurd: You waited and waited for the phone to ring, then sat there listening, breathless, while it rang and rang, because God forbid you should be home and available when he finally deigned to call. The drama, though! Somebody you had a secret crush on actually calling! Or breaking up with somebody, then suddenly missing him months later, and the phone ringing that very night because he wondered if he could see you again—could anything be more kismet?

Years earlier, an operator could have warned you who was calling, probably with a wee bit of judgment in her voice. Years later, you would have seen his number on Caller ID. But I grew up in that slice of time in between, the decades in which you answered without knowing. A job offer? A car accident? A friend sobbing that she was pregnant? You picked up, ready for anything. The world could surprise you. We live in such flux that a glimmer of novelty is possible every second—yet, drained of suspense, few exchanges have the same floodlit significance. It is the difference between listening to anonymous actors in jeans sit around reading from a script and watching a fully costumed, stage-set play.

The first diminishment of surprise was the answering machine. If you are young enough that you would roll your eyes if I admitted (and why am I ashamed?) that we still have a land line, then you cannot begin to imagine the goofy little playlets we came up with for those early outgoing messages. Wildly creative, involving accents and backup music and sound effects, and cringeworthy. But those were giddy years. It was as though someone had beckoned us onstage and handed us a mic—without so much as a karaoke backup.

It must be hard, too, for digital natives to understand the wrinklies’ dismay that no one uses the phone anymore. Years into the shift, we are still bemused by the fact that a phone call—which to us spelled warmth, opportunity, or a practical way to summon help—is now an intrusion. Phones pervaded our lives in such a different way than smartphones, which take over altogether. Superman changed identity in a phone booth. Mere mortals “called a cab,” rather than summon Uber with an app. People called to find out the correct time and temperature or to make an appointment or to order pizza. We once had a dog who could somehow distinguish a pizza-ordering tone of voice and would sit by the door for the next forty minutes.

A telephone is “an instrument designed for the simultaneous transmission and reception of the human voice.” And we no longer need it. Texting is clean and zippy and fun: The message flies, and sometimes an answer zaps right back. We never have to stammer an awkward invitation or make a face because the person on the other end is the last person we wanted to talk to. We never feel that awful hollow feeling of wanting to apologize to somebody and listening, hoping, your palms sweaty against the clunky handset, while the phone just rings and rings.

Texting lets us apologize all by ourselves. No one need answer and grant permission before we can convey our message. The process is far less mutual, less simultaneous, less scary. Because it is not simultaneous transmission, we can reword and craft and decorate even the breeziest abbreviated message. Because it is nearly simultaneous, we still collect the adrenaline reward of a quick response.

As a shy reporter, I had days when I could not bring myself to make a tough phone call to wangle information or confront some politician about a lie. But later, I watched younger colleagues who seemed unwilling to pick up the phone at all, not even to check a tiny, uncontroversial fact with a neutral person, not even when a call would be far faster and the information far more complete than what they could find by desperately googling. The illusion of efficiency has made us reluctant to trust each other; we prefer distanced facts, because we do not have to project our own personality into the world to elicit them.

Receptionists are going the way of the switchboard operator; no one impales pink message sheets on a spike and coordinates everyone’s whereabouts. We have electricity for that: appointments that land on your calendar unbidden, alphabetical directories that seem to contain everyone except your target, syllogistic flowcharts of if-this-then-press-two…. I would mutter that this, too, is less efficient, but then I would sound cranky and old. Crank calls!—that is what we called them. I had forgotten. They were less a cottage industry than today’s scammers, more idiosyncratic, with weird rants or heavy breathing. Such calls could be deeply disturbing, but they were rare, and they were the worst it got. Now we have an entire landscape of predation, crowded with robocalls and cyborg calls that pretend to be people and aggressive charity telemarketers, and a phone’s ring triggers dread instead of anticipation.

All those unwanted calls dealt the death blow to surprise. Who would pass up Caller ID now? Once a nation of extroverts, we have become furtive by necessity. The old exchanges—Pennsylvania, Evergreen, Colfax—gave some personality to the digits that followed, pinning them to the map. Strings of numbers and inscrutable IDs tell us less and less. Once, a game of “Telephone” was a perfect metaphor for the sloppiness of human communication, the unreliability of gossip. Today even that is nailed down: We have texts to forward, and they are truthy. But here is the point: No matter how punchy the words, they reveal far less than the sound of someone’s voice. It is harder to discern intent; harder to detect deception. Speaking something makes it real, and binding, in a way that even writing it down does not.

The irony is sweet: We fought for phone time, chatted for hours, never left home without a quarter for a pay-phone emergency. Now we have phones that are extraordinary, acting as an auxiliary brain and electronic servant, and they are with us constantly, even sleeping by our side—and we never use them to talk.

When my mother-in-law had a second stroke, it blocked the communication center. She could still think, but she could not speak her thoughts. The implication only hit my husband later, once we knew she was safe: I will never hear my mother’s voice again.

Why did it matter? Because voices carry emotion. Back when long-distance was a big deal, phone-company commercials were soppy for good reason: All the Hallmark cards in the world cannot convey the love in a husky or tearful voice; the excitement of a baby on the way; the urgent concern of a mother—or a grown child.

Twenty years ago, my mom had Legionnaire’s disease, and her lungs collapsed. On the way home from that 3 a.m. rush to the hospital, I listened to my voicemail and heard her lightly, happily, and with complete inaccuracy, tell me not to worry—it was just bronchitis—she was feeling better already. I clung to that last happy, loving minute for the next three months, while a ventilator breathed for her in the ICU.

She woke up and lived another nineteen years. After she died, I clutched, berating myself for not taping her voice—and then I remembered. Voicemail! Moving as quickly and carefully as a jewel thief, I located each old message on my phone and mailed it to myself before her voiceprint could somehow vanish in smoke.

Sometimes you just need to hear somebody’s voice.

Don’t you?

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!