Family & Education

Why don't we talk on the phone any more?

The landline is unused, the mobile is for texts or messages. Susan Reuben wonders why phones are going out of fashion


I’m round at my parents’ house and their phone rings.

“I’ll go,” says my dad.

These two little words resonate with me as a phrase from a far-off time. In my childhood home, whenever the phone rang, one of the six of us would always call, “I’ll go,” as a signal that everyone else could carry on with what they were doing.

Our five-year-old has, until not long ago, been very reluctant to talk on the phone at all. So I was intrigued when our land-line rang the other day and he was the one to pick it up. “This is Boaz speaking,” I heard him say. “No, Daddy’s not available. Shall I give you to Mummy?”

I listened in amazement. Where had he picked up this “telephone-language”? He certainly couldn’t have learned it in our house. Then I realised it must be from my parents, who look after him regularly, and who continue to exist in a milieu where the home phone is the first-choice means of communication.

My husband was trying to get hold of a friend recently, and I suggested he try his land-line. “I can’t do that,” he replied. “I’m not his mum!”

He’s right. If our home phone rings, we know it’s either my parents, my mother-in-law, or someone wanting to check whether we’ve been involved in an accident that wasn’t our fault.

But it’s not as though we talk on our mobiles either. In fact, my mobile barely rings at all. I’ve just tried to recall what ring-tone it’s set to, and I realised that I don’t know. As with most people of my generation and younger, nearly all my communication is done through text, WhatsApp, Facebook, email…

I don’t really understand why speaking on the phone has gone out of fashion — why many people (including myself) actively dislike it. I think it might have something to do with control. The harsh ring-ring feels like an intrusion — a demand that you stop whatever you’re doing and attend immediately to the person who is trying to reach you. Written messages, on the other hand, can be answered in your own time and edited before they’re sent. They also don’t force you to call other activities to a halt: you can be having a text conversation with someone and, in between, be getting on with other stuff.

One of the reasons everyone used to rush to answer the phone when it rang was that it was so much harder to contact people in any other way. If you were out, for example, and made a call from a phone box — particularly before the days of answering machines — it would have been fantastically annoying if the recipient had been in but hadn’t picked up.

Now, when I’m out with my kids, they look at phone boxes — particularly the original red ones that have been preserved in picturesque areas — in the same intrigued way that I used to look at sets of servants’ bells left up on the kitchen walls of Victorian suburban houses.

In the early 1980s, my dad, brother and I would watch Doctor Who, religiously, every Saturday afternoon (though “religiously” may be a badly chosen word given that we were watching TV on Shabbat). My dad would sit in his special armchair, with me aged seven-or-so on his knee, and my next-one-along big brother squashed in beside us. This was a good set-up as it made sure we were well protected from the Daleks and any other aliens who might wish the Doctor ill.

One day, though, we were out on Saturday afternoon, and we realised that we hadn’t remembered to video that day’s episode. We knew my mum was at home — but, disaster — we didn’t have any cash to call her. What to do?

If you are over 40, you’ll remember that with red phone boxes you didn’t have to put your coin in till the person at the other end answered. As soon as you heard the “Hello,” you’d push the coin into the slot. If you failed to do so, you would be cut off after a second.

So, not daunted by our lack of money, we went into the nearest phone box and dialled our home number. When my mum said “Hello,” we simultaneously shouted ‘DOCTOR WHO,’ before the line went dead.

Just to be sure, we called again.

“Hello,” said my mum, sounding a little bemused this time.

“DOCTOR WHO,” we shouted over her. By the third “Hello? / DOCTOR WHO” mash-up, my mother was starting to sound slightly hysterical.

The curious thing is that I don’t remember whether it worked.

Tom Baker’s shenanigans on that day may or may not have been revealed to us. All I have retained is the memory of Dad and I, in a phone box, shouting “DOCTOR WHO” at my mother.



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