Dread of the telephone

Bruce Sterling’s entertaining 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier contains a brief, lively history of telegraphy and telephony. (Since reading the paperback I’ve learned that the book is also available online and in podcast form.)

In the mid-1870s the US had thousands of telegraph offices and hundreds of thousands of miles of telegraph wire: as communication technology it was thoroughly established. The telephone began inauspiciously, often considered more toy or parlour trick than momentous innovation. It took a little while for its particular value to become apparent. Sterling:

After a year or so, Alexander Graham Bell and his capitalist backers concluded that eerie music piped from nineteenth-century cyberspace was not the real selling point of his invention. Instead, the telephone was about speech – individual, personal speech, the human voice, human conversation, and interaction. The telephone was not to be managed from any centralized broadcast center. It was to be a personal, intimate technology.

When you picked up a telephone, you were not absorbing the cold output of a machine – you were speaking to another human being. Once people realized this, their instinctive dread of the telephone as an eerie, unnatural device swiftly vanished. . . . The real point was not what the machine could do for you (or to you), but what you yourself, a person and citizen, could do through the machine.

I’m old enough to remember the world before mobile phones and the internet, let alone smartphones, back when house phones were central to real-time remote communication. Technology has again let us change our preferred modes of remote interaction, and the use of phones as a channel for speech has declined precipitously.

For some people, wariness and even dread of phone calls are creeping back.

[click to enlarge]

Candorville comic by Darrin Bell - never answers the phone

Candorville comic, 13 May 2012

dinetter set comic - landline 1 nov. 2011

The Dinette Set, 1 Nov. 2011

Zits comic phone land lines 7 nov 2012

Zits comic, 7 Nov. 2012

Zits comic texting + talking 18 march 2013

Zits comic, 18 March 2013

Zits comic phone book 28 Jan. 2015

Zits comic, 28 Jan. 2015

31 Responses to Dread of the telephone

  1. My husband thought I was losing it when I produced a phone book. We were looking for something to properly a cot naturally!

  2. Prop a cot. Another reason to be irritated by mobiles!!

  3. Laughing at the Dinette set cartoon.
    And its rididculous, my mum gets a couple of calls each day from a number that goes dead as soon as its answered.
    Marketing and all that crap has even led to suicicdes in the elderly from the sheer harassment. Crazy.

  4. I’m also old enough to remember the days when all we had was landlines. And I still use a landline – my mobile is mainly for texting. (I think part of the decline in voice phone calls is because we now have the option of using text messages – it’s not that we’ve gone off the concept of talking to people, it’s that there are situations when we’d rather communicate by text.) (As an introvert, there are *lots* of situations when I’d rather communicate by text…)

    (And it’s also because of being an introvert that I tend to let the phone ring and don’t answer it – but again, the reason I can do that these days is because of voicemail, which is a luxury we didn’t have in the old days. I remember the days even before answering machines, so you either answered the phone when it rang or you missed the call and didn’t know who it was.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      There are people I usually call and seldom text, and for them it’s the same. And phone calls (or computer calls) are still de rigueur for formal chats. But for casual keeping up with friends and family, texting (which here includes other messaging services) and emailing have supplanted talking by phone in many ways. The time asymmetry works in its favour.

      • Same here – with many people I keep up mainly by email, and as you say, the time asymmetry is a large factor. Great to be able to communicate without both parties being available at the same time!

  5. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Hmmmm. Now I feel very old. While I haven’t had a landline at home since about 2000, I do go back to the days in the Northern Territory of often being in places that only had radio telephone, and all the protocols that applied. That is, signalling you were switching to “listen” by saying “over”; and ending a call by saying “out”; and, when reception was less than optimal, spelling out words using the radio alphabet. “Charlie Alpha Romeo Echo Yankee” for Carey, for example. And of course everything was “party line”: the entire world could listen in. That was only 30 years ago!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I never used the radio telephone system, Chips, but that could be down to geography or other factors as well as age. The advances in mere decades would make you dizzy if you dwelt on them; we get used to new norms so quickly.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        At some point I will finish writing the paean to the women who ran the “VJY” system in the Northern Territory, who coordinated the link between two way radios and the phone system. They were wonderful: knew everything about everyone; and saved lives (and I suspect many marriages). You could call in from anywhere: run an aerial up a tree and talk to the world. It was sad to see them go as remote communities linked into land lines, and now mobiles. I still remember my call sign! Victor Mike 8 Lima India– just as I recall my family’s first land line number YA4239. Now I cannot remember anyone’s number as they are all in my contacts list on the mobile; and cannot remember my Italian mobile phone number to save my life!

    • Lady Demelza says:

      I have all the modern technology at my fingertips – the landline was abandoned years ago – and yet I still have to regularly resort to the phonetic alphabet in order to spell names and addresses over the phone. It’s amazing how much the call centre workers love it if you know the phonetic alphabet – maybe it’s in need of a revival? Not long ago I was delighted to hear myself saying ‘November Indigo…’ as I spelt out Nimbin. What a lovely phrase, it sounds like a girl’s name or a design label or something. Then you get to ‘Indigo November’ at the end. Sigh. Now I’m on the lookout for accidental beautiful or interesting phrases that come out of the phonetic alphabet. So far, there’s not very many.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I think reviving, or popularising, the phonetic alphabet is an excellent idea. It brings clarity and colour wherever it goes, and, as you point out, it can also be accidentally evocative and charming. I imagine it’s something children would enjoy learning too.

  6. I’d can the landline too, but part of the year I live in a place with NO CELL SERVICE. Can you believe that? and it’s not in the wilderness of Alaska but in Western Massachusetts.

  7. astraya says:

    In Australia I rarely answered the home phone because no-one had my home phone number as their primary contact for me. Sometimes I would answer but not say anything. If there was someone actually there, they’d either just hang up or say ‘hello’ once or twice then hang up.
    Sometimes I answered in Korean, once leading to this exchange:
    Me: Yoboseyo!
    Them: Er – hello.
    Me: Yoboseyo!
    Them: Er – do you speak English?
    Me: Aniyo. Hanguk-eo haseyo? (No. Do you speak Korean?)
    Them: (Hang up)

    Being a thorough introvert, telephones dreaded me long before mobile phones became an option.

    Before there were telephones, there were multiple mail deliveries per day. Somewhere in my family history file I have a short letter from my great-grandfather to his then girlfriend later my great-grandmother, asking her to go to a dance that evening. He sent it in the full expectation that it would reach her *and* that her reply would reach him on the same day.

    • Chips Mackinolty says:

      @astraya.
      There’s few more things better than playing with people’s heads in another language. I was once in Paris being seriously hassled by a street beggar (following us for a good 100 yards), having a go in English, German, French, Swedish, Russian etc etc. I turned and swore at him in Pitjantjatjara which totally flummoxed him: he went off shaking his head …

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a useful deterrent! On rare occasions I’ve used Irish to vaguely similar ends – to communicate something covertly like ‘leave me be’ or ‘you’re an awful eejit’.

      Where I grew up I don’t remember the postal service operating multiple times a day; it probably wasn’t financially feasible, though there may have been a sideline courier service where necessary.

    • Lady Demelza says:

      You’ve just reminded me of something I’d forgotten all about – the funny things I’d sometimes say when answering my own landline phone. Favourites include ‘Wonderland, Alice speaking,’ or ‘Centre of the Universe, God speaking.’ That was so much fun.

  8. Iva Cheung says:

    Remember when no one had cell phones and if you wanted to reach someone you were meeting at a public place or in a restaurant or something, you’d have to call the restaurant and fumble your way through a conversation to leave a message or talk to the person… Oh god, the Seinfeldian awkward—I’m so glad those days are over.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Amen to that. And queuing for public phones, not knowing when they’d be available, and fumbling for coins or spare phonecards when you were running out of credit.

  9. The culture of phone use has certainly changed in a lot of ways. At the beginning of the millennium, people were sometimes aghast to hear that I sometimes let the phone ring out if I am present but it’s not convenient to answer it. Now everyone does that.

    I don’t dread phones (the eyerolling “ugh” I feel each time knowing it’s probably a scam, survey, charity or marketting call is a different emotion entirely), but I do dread answering machines. If I get an answering machine I will immediately hang up. If it is important I will phone back after carefully scripting the message I want to leave.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You were ahead of the curve on ignoring the phone, Adrian. The sound of an incoming call still alarms some people. I know one or two who – even with the phone beside them – jump up from their seat, flustered.

      I suspect dread of answering machines (or resentment or some other form of dislike) is pretty common. I don’t normally mind leaving messages, but as often as not I hang up and try calling again after a while, depending on circumstances.

      • astraya says:

        It’s been a while since I’ve left and answering machine/voice mail message, but leaving a message has a different ‘feel’ to it than speaking to a person. If you answered, I would probably ask how you were. I might start a voice message by saying ‘I hope you are well’ but I certainly wouldn’t ask ‘How are you?’. Then there’s condensing what might be a multi-part question into a brief message. Before mobile phones I couldn’t just say ‘Please call me back’ because I don’t know when that will be and where I will be at the time.

  10. ruomee says:

    Honestly, I do much prefer sending text messages or emails over phone calls. I can perfect the message and make sure I’m not missing anything before sending it. It also gives me some time to process what is being said before replying. Phone calls are of a faster pace, I have to reply right on the spot. And if I think of a better answer like two minutes after the question, I can’t really go back and answer it again.

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