Talking on the phone is the worst—can you blame these guys for texting?
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  • Talking on the phone is the worst—can you blame these guys for texting?

A man of a certain age confides:

“I have found social media to be a valuable tool in re-connecting with old friends, many of whom I had lost touch with. The contact gets made via Facebook, or similar, and that allows for more direct contact via messaging or email. . . . I am not a philanderer but I do have a number of women friends and a few old girlfriends with whom I am in touch. Although this is all above board, contact by social media is more private and is perceived to be less threatening to marital bliss than phone contact would be.”

I had asked some people with whom I’m in cybercontact if they favored the written word over the human voice. He stepped forward with his testimony on behalf of the former. His second reason was equally compelling: “Also, posts, messaging and email provide more focus to the matter at hand and are at one’s own convenience. Have you not found yourself on the telephone wishing the call would just end, either because you have lost interest in the conversation or the call is an interruption to some other activity in your life?”

As a matter of fact, I have. I have caught myself holding the receiver far from my ear and shaking it vigorously—as if trying to fling the mud off a stick—when the voice in the receiver becomes too much to bear.

What brought on my query was a passage in the New Yorker review of a new movie, Men, Women & Children, whose theme, says critic David Denby, is that “our obsession with screens and devices has erased our ability to get to know one another.” Denby—who shares this concern—offers a moment from his private life: “A parent I know, grounding his teen-age daughter, took away her texting privileges for a week but allowed her to use the house landline. ‘You can call your boyfriend on the phone,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t know what to say to him,’ she protested.”

My first reaction to this anecdote was the one Denby was counting on: tsk tsk. My second was a flush of sympathy for the daughter. How many lively correspondences do you have with people you hope to God never call? I asked myself. The answer: many, many, many. Just as one for instance, I’m part of a small group of high school classmates who communicate among ourselves by e-mail. I have enough in common with all the others to get through a reunion weekend every five years, but outside that context I question how much small talk I’d be good for. As for serious conversation, I’m pretty sure political differences would put a stop to that inside of ten minutes.

But I’m adept at composing e-mails. So are we all.

I have a friend who’s launched himself on a remarkable project. He intends to track down the people in his life who mattered to him once but he’s lost contact with. OK, a lot of people do that. What’s remarkable is what my friend intends to do next—call them. This is almost unheard of. In the early days of Internet search engines I spent hours at the computer looking for everybody I ever knew who had an unusual name. One classmate turned out to be a Manhattan lawyer at a fancy address. I immediately sent him an e-mail hoping to put to rest something long on my mind:

“A thousand pardons if I’m mistaken, but if memory serves, just before graduation you set fire to the men’s room in the auditorium. What was that about?”

I would never have called him to ask that. And I had nothing else to say to him. E-mail was a complete godsend.

He didn’t get back to me.

My sister Dixie McIlwraith offers a compelling argument for Facebook. She joined to keep tabs on her grandchildren, and, sure enough—it’s let her “witness love affairs, promotions, heartbreak, deaths and thousands of cute baby pictures.” Moreover, it’s given her a chance to air her views on subjects close to her heart “without interruptions from people telling me what they think.” Everyone speaks in turn on Facebook. And although each “strong exchange of views” is likely to be followed by somebody’s unfriending, and although she suspects relations she’s alienated “are confident I will shortly burn in hell,” she’s grateful to social media. It “enlarges my world.”

Was there ever a time when conversation wasn’t riddled with hesitations, evasions, and important things put badly? Bear in mind that to alleviate the pitfalls of communication, in older times the gentry exchanged letters that messengers delivered, often waiting while replies were carefully composed. How different was that from today’s texting? The telephone was a later, more egalitarian way to speak to someone without facing him, but though it was speedier and allowed for more human contact in less time, it failed to solve the eternal question of how to prevent your most important conversations from ending disastrously.

Lucky are we who were alive to see the breakthrough!

When we see buses full of teenagers texting furiously, do those of us who judge them with sadness or contempt stop to think that all are engaged in the vital art of human communication? Which isn’t easy and never has been. A few years ago I got a call completely out of the blue from a girl I’d last seen on the front steps of the sorority house I’d walked her to the night we graduated from college. I was tongue-tied then—but, by God, if we’d only been into texting she’d have had a completely different idea of the stuff I was made of. When she called I was just as tongue-tied. Why did she call? Why didn’t she find me on Facebook?