Just after Thanksgiving, I was sitting around with some friends of mine, and somehow the talk turned to the subject of cell phones.
Someone asked how it was that I, “Mr Tech-Head,” didn’t have a smartphone of some sort, but only had a $10 flip phone on a pay-as-you go plan. I said that I only make about four calls a day on it, if that many; and all of my other PDA functions are taken care of by my iPod Touch. But even more important was the fact that I really hated using the cell phone on a regular basis. I much prefer to use a landline – the sound quality is much better.
Then Kathy said something that I hadn’t thought of. She said that one of the things we’ve lost with everyone having their own personal phone number is the possibility of surprise…the idea that without it having been a wrong number, we might initially get someone other than the person we had called to talk to. She’s right; with just about everyone having their own personal phone number, you’ll almost never get anyone other than the person you called for.
But when Kathy said that we had lost this possibility of surprise, she didn’t say it as if it were a good thing, like we’ve lost the possibility of getting smallpox. No, to her, and I suspect many other people my age, this loss is a real loss; it’s something that we’ll miss, and that we feel that the world has become a poorer place without.
Why? Because as she said as we sat around the kitchen table, when you called up and got someone other than the person you really wanted to speak to, generally got 10 to 30 seconds of a short conversation with the person who answered the phone while you waited for the person you actually wanted to pick up. When you got someone other than the person you called for, you formed a brief relationship with that person by asking about them and finding out what they were doing; and maybe from that brief conversation, you’d find out that you had a common interest…something you could pick up on the next time that person answered the phone.
And at the very least, it forced us to be polite. We knew that we couldn’t just call up and say, “Hi, lemme have Sue,” and wait silently until Sue came to the phone. You had to learn to carry on a conversation with someone that you might not have really been interested in talking to in the first place.
OK…so I can see that certain members of this generation might not think that that was such a big loss, but it is. We’ve forgotten how to talk to people we’re not interested in. We’ve lost the skill of being civil to people we may not normally want to talk to.
But the most important thing is something I mentioned earlier, the loss of the serendipitous discovery that maybe we had something in common with the person who answered the phone, and that perhaps a friendship could develop there too.
As we talked about this, my wife Cheryl (as opposed to my other two wives) mentioned something that we hadn’t thought of. She said that maybe the role that having someone else answer the phone played in creating those serendipitous matches is being played by Facebook now. I thought about that for a moment, and mentioned how a chance comment by one of my FB friends about her gluten-free diet caused another one of my friends, who also has gluten issues, to contact and friend her. When Kathy, a long-time Facebook holdout, heard this, she decided that maybe she’d have to finally join it after all.
But you still won’t get either one of us to give up our landlines.