too much typing—since 2003


can you hear!

We're thinking of getting rid of our landline telephone. We make and receive very few calls anyway; most of our communication with friends takes place via e-mail, and the few folks we know who don't regularly use e-mail (parents, for the most part) can be called on our cell. Through Rose's work, we have cheap access to two cell phone numbers, and at this point I see no reason not to designate one of them our main line, and keep the other one for "personal" or private usage.

I happened to mention this to a co-worker (at my part-time non-academic job), and we recognized that part of the plausibility of this move for us has to do with our particular lives: no kids, most people we know with online access, etc. At one point, though, the co-worker said she didn't think she'd do it even in our situation: she'd hate the idea of having to carry the cell phone everywhere just so she'd have it with her to answer whenever anyone called. I responded, well, we never answer our phone anyway; we just let the machine get it and call the person back later. She blanched, and went off on a diatribe about how irritating that was and how arrogant we were, that we were "making a statement that our time is more valuable than anyone else's." I was a bit taken aback at the vehemence of her opinions (even though it was clear they weren't really directed at me - it's not as if she calls us often), and the difference between my perspective and hers got me thinking of how radically different our attitudes toward an apparently simple thing like phone calls can be, and where those differences might come from.

I think the chief difference is that our main mode of communication by now is, by an enormous margin, e-mail. And the communicative philosophy underlying e-mail is very much a non-timebound philosophy, a philosophy which then colonizes the rest of one's non- face-to-face communications. (I should say also that we seldom receive or make calls that require immediate action or response. In part, this is the no-kids thing, plus both our parents are in reasonably good health - and neither of us is in a business that requires constant and immediate access and response.) So to me, e-mailing someone means that at some point, sooner or later depending upon the recipient's convenience, they'll get back to me. I know that; I know, usually, about how often the person checks their mail, so I know about how long I can reasonably expect to wait for that response (if indeed my message is the kind that requires any response at all) and how much later a follow-up might make sense. Similarly, I know that most people e-mailing me have similar expectations and awareness.

What I hadn't thought of until today is that, really, I approach phone-calling the same way. When I call someone, I really don't expect that person to answer. First, the odds are generally good that the person isn't home (and I certainly don't think, "are they home?" before I call - precisely because it doesn't matter: I can just leave a message); second, I know that most of our friends also don't answer the phone. Telemarketers are partially to blame for this - but not wholly, and the number of telemarketers has dropped dramatically since the onset of "do not call" lists. (Ironically, they still call, quite frequently, at work. And there, of course, especially since it's my job to answer the damned things, I can't just ignore the phone. I'm more irritated by marketing calls there than at home.) But the expectation makes a huge difference - and because I simply don't expect a person to answer the phone when I call, it flabbergasted me that not only would someone else expect people to answer but would be offended that some people don't.

In fact, my model of telephone communication pretty much reverses that time-valuation formulation my co-worker alluded to. When I don't answer the phone, it's not so much that I think my time is more valuable than someone else's, it's that I don't assume they'd expect me to answer the phone - since such an expectation in fact assumes that their time is more valuable than mine. They know what they're doing at that moment, and that they have time to call me - but they can't know what I'm doing. So it seems, in my perspective, unreasonable to expect me to jump up from whatever I'm doing to answer the phone, just because they've decided it's time to call me. It seems far more reasonable to assume that, in fact, the expectation isn't that I'll answer now, but only that they want to communicate with me. Depending on the nature of the call, that might require co-temporaneous conversation (you know: talking back and forth at the same time), but most likely, that isn't even the case. And this, once again, is a direct translation from the e-mail model: it's far easier for everyone's time to jot messages back and forth (and now that most everyone pays a flat fee rather than a time-based fee for e-mail, time's no longer an issue of money) than to attempt to coerce a co-temporaneous event into existence.

But yeah: twenty years ago - or more so, longer ago, prior to the invention of the answering machine - it would have been the height of arrogance to refuse to answer the phone. (And in a business setting, I suppose, it still is. But I'm most definitely not in a business setting when I'm at home.) But now? I don't know...I've never been a fan of extended telephone conversations - and if it were practical, I'd probably have no phone at all. That, I recognize, is weird. But then, I'm still one of those people who just can't figure out what the hell all those public cell-phone babblers are talking about, or who they're all talking to.

No comments: