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London - The promise in my e-mail 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 300km 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.
The fact is that the more people use their addictive smartphones to SMS, social network, watch video clips, shop or play silly games, 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”, it’s the sound of silence that rules.
A fascinating statistic emerges from a study carried out last year by a US-based global information and measurement company called Nielson.
Taking data from across the world, it discovered that voice calls have dipped 12 percent since 2009, while SMSing 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 texting “talking” – as in the case of the young man who wrote to my advice column 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 correspondingly become reduced?
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 whomever 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 trip, 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 e-mailing (yes, I’m queen of e-mails) because it keeps people at one remove. Think about it. The distancing process began when people began letting the answering machine kick in and only picked 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 “tweeting” 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 nearby.
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 or playing games on his iPad.
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.
His conscience is clear because 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 e-mail or text?
We may love our elderly parents and needy friends, but relying on texts and e-mails keeps them at a distance as sure as a steel door slammed in their faces.
In the 1980s, a British Telecom ad starred 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 poor 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. – Daily Mail