I made phone calls for my business last night. I hadn’t done it since my voice got froggy and scratchy and Cookie Monster-ish, and so I had just gotten out of the habit of it. It is easy for me to get out of the habit of making these calls, because I hate the telephone.
When we had a home phone (a land line, I mean, a term which always sounds to me like an alternative to ship-to-shore), I rarely answered it, until I Overcame Agoraphobia and had to force myself to answer it. Now I have a cell phone, which I always answer if I happen to have it with me, but it is really only for work. I don’t give people the number, I don’t keep it with me if I’m not working, and I don’t call people for inessential interaction. It is much less of a burden to me than a telephone in my house, with a public phone number, was.
Ozarque has been writing about IM and text messaging and email and the phone, and I’ve been discussing it with my kids on her behalf, so I have some new insights.
My youngest kid can’t remember life before email. He thinks of email as something formal, for work or school. IM is normal interaction, and he IMs in abnormal English. I don’t see him IMing these days, because he is at a secretive age, but I remember that I always noticed that he — and not the older kids — had a distinctive IM style that wasn’t like ordinary English. Texting, he says, is for talking to people at school without getting in trouble.
#1 son remembers when we got internet access — rather late, because we were so rural. He doesn’t have clear memories of what life was like before the internet, necessarily, because he didn’t have a lot of contact with others outside his home and neighborhood before that time, but he remembers school without the internet. He has the agoraphobic tendencies, I’m afraid (it runs in families; it’s an issue for #1 daughter as well), and sees texting not only as good for secret communication, but also for sending a message without the awkwardness of having to talk on the phone.
My daughters remember life before the internet. They email for basic communication. They talk on the telephone socially, and #1 daughter actually prefers phone communication over computer. They use punctuation — not exactly as in written communication, but in a rule-governed fashion. They can write letters on paper, if called upon to do so.
I can tell you almost exactly when I first heard about email: January or February of 1990. I can remember when computers were the size of refrigerators. I use punctuation and paragraphs for email. Occasionally, I even use greetings. When we first began using email, we wrote letters, just as though they were on paper, and then sent them off. I know people older than myself who still do this. And we couldn’t use email for formal things, such as thank you letters or bread and butter notes or job applications; they didn’t count. In fact, boys and girls, this was just an update of an earlier rule, which specified which kinds of letters could be typewritten and which had to be handwritten or they didn’t count. A typewriter was a machine sort of like a computer, in that it had a keyboard and made letters, but it made marks directly on paper, and was not hooked up to a computer in any way. When we first got computers, we wrote letters on them and printed them out, as an update to the typewriter. You can still see typewriters in old movies sometimes. You probably think they are computers.
Bread and butter notes were informal notes you wrote to your hostess thanking her for her hospitality, and stuff like that. Courteous people still do this, but mostly by email nowadays.
I still feel, in my heart, that you ought to write thank you letters for wedding gifts by hand, on paper. Keep this in mind if an old person ever gives you a wedding gift.
Email is normal communication, for me. I also IM a lot, but only with close friends and family. I wouldn’t refuse an IM from someone else, but I don’t tell people my IM info or initiate IM conversations with others. For me, IM is the good alternative to the telephone for random chatting.
“Chatting,” by the way, was when I was young an old-fashioned term for desultory talk. My kids use the word as the normal term for electronic talk. My youngest told me that if you want to specify electronic talking via IM or during gaming, which he usually just calls talking, you can say “chatting.” So you can’t say that you and your friend were just sitting on the porch chatting when you talk to young people. I don’t know what you would say. Maybe we will have to go back to “visiting,” a word I associate with grandmothers. If that won’t do, we’ll need to come up with a new word for friendly aimless face-to-face talk, or we’ll lose the custom entirely, and that would be a shame.
My kids also don’t mind talking to robots on the phone. I hate it. I hate it even more than I hate talking to humans on the phone. There is always a point at which I cry, “Isn’t there a human I can talk to?!”
Yesterday, I was making a call to the insurance company, and I said that after 15 minutes or so of frustrating attempts to get a question answered by a robot, and — behold! — the robot said, “Customer service? Is that what you said?” I said, “Yes,” with a great sense of relief, and they hooked me up with a human being, who was of course able to answer my question immediately. It was very sensible of the company to teach their robots to recognize the word “human” — or possibly the agitated tone of voice.
When telephones first came into fashion, there was concern that they might be used by scantily-clad people. You might, folks feared, be talking to a member of the opposite sex who was not properly dressed, and you wouldn’t even know it. I don’t know how people resolved this; maybe they just got over it.
When people from my husband’s country first encountered telephones in the 1980s, they had an enormous problem with answering the phone. Their language has a variety of greetings, depending on the hierarchical relationships of the speakers. It is impossible to know how to greet someone if you can’t see who they are. This was before caller ID, which would have solved the problem. At first, they would just answer in silence, and the person who called and who therefore had a better chance of guessing their relationship with the one who answered, had to essay the greeting. This didn’t work well with American callers. Eventually, they switched to “Hello.”
Cell phone etiquette has been an issue within my memory. I remember that when we first began having a store full of people who were talking on phones, we discussed it, The Empress and I, and decided to behave as though the people were in phone booths. That is, we ignored their existence till they were off the phone. Now we behave as though they were talking with a person who was physically present.
As further communicative options arise, there will be linguistic and cultural issues with them as well, I am sure. We have always had to be able to adapt these things. We just have to do it a lot faster now.