Fear of the Phone—It Rings True

For my 18th birthday, my parents took me to see Jerry Seinfeld at Spreckels Theatre in San Diego. It was a solid stand-up routine, packed with great one-liners and funny observations, but one comment really stuck with me: “Sending someone an e-mail is the basest form of communication. It’s just one step removed from not contacting that person at all.” At the time, this sharp social commentary resonated with me, and I think it rings even truer today.
Communication is changing. About five years ago, the cell phone became the hottest item on the market. It was not uncommon to see people speaking (often at a deafening volume) on cell phones at supermarkets, shopping malls, bus stops or just about anywhere. And the cell phone craze is anything but stagnant since new phones emerge constantly. They now boast more amenities than ever before.
Instead of merely talking on a cell phone, people now surf the Internet, snap digital photos and listen to music. Perhaps the most frequently used of these new capabilities is text messaging, a communication trend experiencing a rapid rise in popularity. It is now impossible to be anywhere without the clicking of cell-phone buttons rattling your brain.
The other form of communication replacing phones is e-mail, the big brother of the text message. E-mail established itself as the standard means of communication, not just in the business world and in academia, but universally. Even if someone doesn’t have a cell phone, chances are that he or she has at least one e-mail address, if not two. Can you think of anyone who doesn’t have an e-mail account? With all of these technological advancements, it is now easier than ever to remain in contact with one another. But are we really as “connected” as we think? Since talking on the phone is going out of style, are faceless, voiceless e-mails and text messages dehumanizing the way we communicate?
In her article for the New York Times, “The Office Phone Call Was Music to the Ears,” Megan Hustad discusses the changing atmosphere of the business world as e-mail replaces phone calls as the way to communicate in the office. Hustad speaks of eerily quiet offices where not even the rustling of papers is heard. Without telephones ringing, business just isn’t the same as it once was and that’s not exactly a good thing, according to Hustad, who argues for the importance of phone conversations in the work place.
First, Hustad believes that eavesdropping on a boss’s phone conversation is “the cheapest, easiest way to transmit institutional knowledge.” Eavesdropping on a boss’s conversation with a client or another person in the industry gives the employee a model of how to conduct business, and perhaps some useful tips on how to climb the company ladder. Secondly, phone calls to people in higher positions require us to react in the moment. It is much less nerve-racking to sit behind a computer screen and meticulously craft a well-written, grammatically correct e-mail than to call an industry bigwig and have to think on the fly. Making phone calls to higher-ups helps us to gain courage, which is an integral quality for career advancement.
Underlying the message of Hustad’s article is the notion that e-mail is a far more passive form of communication than talking on the phone. More often than not, an e-mail or text message is less urgent than a phone call. Also, verbal assaults on the phone are much more traumatizing than e-mails composed exclusively of capital letters to indicate anger and frustration. Hustad’s article also emphasizes that the act of e-mailing contains less human interaction than a telephone call. An e-mail can be informative, but only through a phone call (or in person) are we really able to get a sense of someone’s personality, mood or feelings.
So what is this all about? Are we afraid of picking up the phone, or is it more convenient to hide behind our computer screens? Or are we too self-centered and consider our time as too precious to make a phone call when something less personal like an e-mail or text message would suffice? This inquisitive mind would be interested in discovering what lurks behind these new and intriguing social practices, but there is not nearly enough room in this article to muse on this topic to the extent that I would like.
At any rate, strolling down Ring Mall in between classes on any given school day, it is evident that the way we communicate is changing. Everyone is “wired,” whether it is the businessman checking e-mail on his Blackberry, or the teenage girl bursting into hysterics as she sends a text message to her friend about last night’s episode of “The Hills.” It seems as though talking on the phone is becoming an antiquated practice. It would be a travesty if the phone conversation were headed for extinction.
Although phone conversation in the work environment has diminished, talking on the phone is the most human form of communication, outside of speaking to one another in person. The human voice will always be more expressive than words on a screen, and for these reasons and others, perhaps phone conversation isn’t going anywhere. However, neither are e-mail and text messaging.
Technology constantly reshapes our lives and the means by which we communicate, and e-mail and text messaging are just the latest evolutions in communication. There is nothing inherently wrong with either form of communication. It is simply the exclusion of talking on the phone that threatens our human connection to one another. Let us hope that as the world continues to spin forward, we do not lose that connection. In our increasingly “wired” society, it is something worth maintaining.