Rotary dial telephones shared only one basic function with today's...

Rotary dial telephones shared only one basic function with today's mobile devices, promoting communication that's become rarer today. Credit: AP / Dan Hardy

Remember the old AT&T slogan, “Reach out and touch someone”? Well, my phone rang five times today and the only people interested in touching me were telemarketing for three charities, a political campaign and a real estate company.

Conversely, I made three calls, all fulfilling responsibilities — returning a call to an elderly aunt, checking on a sick neighbor and offering empathy to a friend having a tough time. Suddenly I realized that if you aren’t ill or unhappy, you probably won’t be hearing from me, at least by phone.

It wasn’t always the case. So familiar still are the memories of the s-l-o-w process of rotary dialing to enter a number, the sensation of returning the handset to the cradle to end the call, the tangle of stretched-out cord to allow for some privacy.

There was a time when people didn’t want their words overheard — remember those claustrophobic phone booths? And calling after 11 p.m. because the rates were lower? And asking for yourself when you arrived so loved ones would know you had traveled safely?

Not so long ago, making phone calls was a quiet, metered, intimate activity. So what happened to long, delicious catch-up calls? The conversations where meaning lies not just in what I said or the exact words I choose, but in the inside-of-the-ear intimacy, complete with cackles and snorts and sighs and deep thoughts.

Humorist Fran Lebowitz said, “Remember that as a teenager you are at the last stage in your life when you will be happy to hear that the phone is for you.” It was an OMG moment for me when I realized she might be right.

Two thumbs tapping has replaced two ears listening for most everyone’s communication needs. According to Vanity Fair, the number six thing people do with their cellphones is make a call. Number six! After texting and Googling and social media and directions and taking pictures. My own daughter can’t be bothered to leave a message if I’m not home when she calls. Waste of time, she says. “You can see that I called so call me back.”

I read recently that when author Siddhartha Mukherjee receives an invitation he cannot accept, he sends a text: Apologies. Unable.

I get that he’s an insanely busy man. And that men love texting because audible words require effort, connection and sharing. Not their strong suit. But isn’t that response as rude as it is curt? Yet saying that, I find that I, too, lack the social graces I once had. I send emails way more than investing the time to verbally respond. Prime time to devote to a conversation is different for everyone. And if you call at the wrong time, it’s intrusive. I won’t ever phone a friend on her cell just to chat, assuming I’m interrupting her day, and she feels as I do that unless I’m home — not at the gym or in the car or in a store — I’m not focused enough to pay enough attention to her words. And like my dinner reservations, last call for a welcome conversation has moved up a few hours to early evening.

Am I too lazy? Too busy? Too tired? Too impatient to visit heart-to-heart by phone? My friends are certainly no less important to me than they’ve ever been. Several of them feel similarly, which makes me feel that maybe it’s that at this stage of our lives we use short calls, texts, and emails to make more frequent face-to-face plans. We might live in a different age but our affirming, challenging, loving, restorative chats, warmer and more honest than any email or text, are not quite vestigial yet.


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