London - The promise in my email to my dear friend Gaynor couldn’t have been more clear: “Let’s make a date to talk tomorrow - I’ll be at home.”
Was that a sneaky way of suggesting I expected her to phone me? Probably, because she usually does. My best friend (who lives 200 miles away) is proactive - and forgiving when I’m not.
But last weekend she didn’t call and nor did I. So much for my good intentions. So much for the “date”. As a teenager, I used to chat on the phone for hours, but now I’ve picked up the modern disease of phone-phobia. And I simply don’t understand it.
When even our Prime Minister seems as incapable as any gawky teen of putting his cellphone away, it may seem odd to suggest phone usage is slipping.
Yet, as we’ve discovered, “DC”, as our Prime Minister likes to sign himself, is busily texting the likes of fallen newspaper boss Rebekah Brooks when he’d be better employed seriously discussing the mess we’re in with wiser people. Face to face and at length, with no breaks to play the Fruit Ninja cellphone game.
The fact is that the more people use their addictive smartphones to text message, socially network, watch video clips, shop or play silly games (and worse), the less they talk. You know - speak, converse, chat. Exchange confidences, information, views and gossip. That was why the telephone was invented, right?
The name implies its function - from Greek words meaning “afar” and “sound”. To let family and friends at a distance hear your voice. But here’s the paradox. In this age of frantic ‘communication’ across the media, it’s the sound of silence that rules.
A fascinating statistic emerges from a study carried out last year by a leading US-based global information and measurement company called Nielsen.
Taking data from across the world, they discovered voice calls have dipped 12 percent since 2009, while text messaging has exploded, tripling in volume among teenagers.
Though my friend Gaynor likes to text, I choose not to (unless I must for practical reasons) because it’s such a fiddly, inadequate method of communication.
It’s sad, but significant that young people invariably call text-ing “talking’”- as in the case of the young man who wrote to my problem page because he was shy and lonely, even though he liked “talking” to a girl he fancied.
Puzzled, I realised belatedly he meant texting. He rarely had the courage to speak to her face to face.
A whole generation has reduced “talking” to “CU Friday” and “Wassup?” and “Love U”.
My question is: have their relationships become correspondingly reduced, too?
Writing this, I was just interrupted. My landline rang and my first thought was: “Oh no! I don’t want to talk on the phone because I’m working.” That’s at the root of my phone-phobia. I was ready to be curt with whoever it was, but my old friend Liz wanted to catch up, and so what else to do but leave my desk, sit comfortably and chat?
I told her about our recent visit to Ludlow, she raved about how her newest grandson’s face lights up when she walks into the room, and after some more pleasant exchanges and commiserations, we decided she’ll come to dinner on my husband’s birthday.
Now I’m back at my desk feeling so much better. That was a real talk.
Maybe people feel more comfortable texting and emailing (yes, I’m a queen of emails) because it keeps people at one remove. Think about it. The distancing process began when people would let the answerphone kick in and only pick up if they heard the voice of someone they wanted to chat to. Did you ever hear a desperate friend plead ‘I know you’re there so please pick up’ at an unresponsive phone?
With the supremacy of the cellphone it all became even easier because you could check who was phoning and “unknown number” could easily be ignored.
It’s become like a virtual minder permanently cold- shouldering people. Paradoxically, we shut ourselves off while at the same time Facebooking and Twittering away about our most private activities. It’s a mistake to think this is only an affliction of the young.
Over the past year, something began to bother me in the letters to my Saturday advice column: parents telling me that they text their children, while I would always pick up the phone.
Just as I feel strange if I don’t speak to my parents at least every other day, so I expect my daughter to call me.
But the insidious four-letter word crops up again and again in letters from parents who regret the fact their children aren’t in touch enough, even if they live relatively near.
Here is Mrs G., from Hampshire: “I text my son once a week and he does text back, but am I demanding to think he could visit me more often? I know he’s busy, but since my husband died I’ve felt so alone.”
Does she text out of choice? More likely she dreads her “busy” son sounding impatient if she happens to phone when he’s cleaning his golf clubs, playing games on his iPad or whatever.
Or it could be that her daughter-in-law is chilly (this is all too common) and she fears that even more.
I suspect the brief text exchanges suit her son, since then he won’t have to listen to Mom going on about how she misses Dad or her boring chat about the weather and the weeds.
His conscience is clear because - hey! - he’s been in touch, hasn’t he? Keeping in touch is the bizarre modern imperative (all those tweets!), yet we keep people at arm’s length.
If you know your friend’s marriage has broken up, do you pick up the phone to call her - and expose yourself to all her anger, pain and sadness? Face up to the break in the voice, the silences, the tears?
Or do you send an email or text saying: ‘”hinking of *, hon, and * know I’m always here 4U xxx” Duty done!
We may love our elderly parents and needy friends, but relying on texts and emails keeps them at a distance as sure as a steel door slammed in their faces.
In the Eighties, a famous British Telecom ad campaign starred the fabulous Maureen Lipman as Beattie, who discovered the usefulness of phoning ahead to buy a washing machine or confirm a date, but also to console a grandson over bad exam results.
It was a warm message, continued later by Bob Hoskins, who twinkled: “It’s good to talk.”
“It’s good to text” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
My worry is that the next generation, dependent on social networking and messaging, will lose the ability to listen and empathise because you can only do this when you hear the nuance of a voice. People need attention, and that requires a sacrifice of your time.
LOL may mean “laugh out loud”, but how much better to hear the chuckle!
And even if poor old DC had been right to think it meant “lots of love”, how much more meaningful it is to hear genuine affection in your best friend’s voice - which is why I’m going to call her right now. - Daily Mail