It seems that talking is making a comeback, though for some of us, the value of the chatty check-in or the reassurance of a friend’s laughter never went the way of the telegram. Instead, we supplemented the phone’s usage with email, text, social media and Skype – when it made sense. But we did not – and will not – replace its conversation entirely.
I will add: Nor do we automatically substitute voice on its own with the glitzier go-to, Face Time.
In “Pass the Word: The Phone Call Is Back,” Jenna Wortham writes:
A few months ago, something curious started to happen… My friends started picking up their cell phones for an unusual purpose: They wanted to talk. And I started answering when they called.
Referring to “the virtues of actually talking on a phone,” Ms. Wortham reminds us that words on the page (make that screen), however embellished by emoticons and abbreviations, do not communicate as expressively as tone or intonation. Or rather, we may not understand the message in the way it was intended.
Even in a business context, the recipient of a quick text or a lengthy email cannot always discern the sender’s mood or frame of mind, much less explicit emotions: We are left wondering if the boss is irked or simply inquiring; if the new beau is bothered or blithely bantering; if the college student is tired after the overseas haul, or paralyzed at the prospects of making her way in a foreign country.
Citing statistics that reflect a cellular phone resurgence for actual two-way talk, one industry expert in Ms. Wortham’s report notes a shift away from landlines to mobile as a reason, as well as new apps that offer the personalization of phone calls without the interruptions.
And so I find myself skimming through the article’s mentions of audio chat and new voice-based systems, and projections into the next generations of smart appliances and ‘necessary’ gadgets. Fine. Why not?
However, voice command when I’m paying a bill is one thing (it fails as often as not); I’m unpersuaded that I want too much of my life “activated” without additional options.
I also consider my sons, both Millennials, and the ways they choose to stay in touch. They are technology-savvy (like their peers) and typical of their early twenty-something counterparts: They Facebook, they message, they Skype, and they do so with me as well. Yet phone calls remain a staple in our communication toolbox. In conversation I can hear excitement, fatigue, worry, boredom. I may also recognize the nuances of longing, certainly when I mention my homemade lasagna.
When the elder was a freshman and placed a long distance call, I could note a trace of homesickness, never in the words, but in the timbre of his voice and in reading the pauses. I knew to reach out more often or send a “CARE package” with something to make him smile.
Periodically, one or the other taps and talks to check on me. I am convinced my children are as adept at reading my voice (and feelings) as I am at theirs. Besides, when conversing on the phone, I am permitted to picture their faces exactly as I please – at times age 12, at others, 17. And this is a gift.
As for the telephone itself, some may conjure charming recollections of poodle skirts and gossip sessions. Others may grin as they remember the arrival of a princess phone. I recall the seemingly miraculous cordless, and the earliest (cumbersome) car phones – just in case of emergency, as calls were expensive.
Sure, the telephone is also the bearer of bad news, once relegated to Western Union, but it is equally likely to deliver glad tidings. And yes, it can be a disruption.
Yet how often do we miss sly humor in an email? What about the desperate loneliness that is undisclosed inside a chat box? In contrast, who will deny the relief at hearing a friend’s empathetic sigh or conspiratorially appreciative snicker?
For me, the telephone will always be in style. It remains rich in sensory elements, leaving just enough to the imagination. And don’t count out the basics: People love human contact, and a call can be the next best thing to sitting in a shared space. It also boasts a singular advantage: the option to politely disconnect.
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