There’s a Facebook meme that I sometimes see, and it goes something like this: “Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a phone call to a text message. I want to hear your voice, to have a personal connection, not just read what you have to say.”
I don’t think I have the words exactly right, but the gist of the thing is there, and it’s the general message and attitude of it that I want to address to begin with. The attitude conveyed by the meme seems to be one of self-righteousness and self-congratulation—though probably most of the people who share it don’t feel that way. To many of us that’s the way it comes across, though, and I have little doubt that the originator of the meme felt smug and snooty as he or she created it.
It’s to that person that I’m really addressing the first part of this post, but I also want to speak to those who thoughtlessly share the meme, causing real pain for some people, one of whom is me.
First, and perhaps foremost, I want to address the absurd notion that a phone call could ever be “old-fashioned.” Humans have had telephones—in any form—for barely over a century, and for the first half of that time, the phone was a rarely used, and a rarely owned, item. Phones as a ubiquitous means of communication only came into common existence in the latter half of the twentieth century, and became something each person carried on their person only within the last decade or so. Writing, on the other hand—text messages, if you will—has existed in one form or another for millennia.
True, for much of human history, most people didn’t know how to read and write, but that’s not the case in modern America, and the only form of communication older than a written message is that of direct, interpersonal communication. This clearly is the most fundamental means of human interaction, but it is also localized and provincial by nature.
Perhaps those who share the above meme think that a phone call somehow approximates this oldest form of interaction, and that explains why they consider it old-fashioned (and somehow, thus, better than written messages). If so, I think this is a misapprehension, or at least it misses some important points.
A phone, as the great British comedian Stephen Fry has pointed out, is a fantastically rude device. Calling someone on the phone is, he said, the equivalent to walking up to someone’s desk or door, banging on it repeatedly, and saying, “Talk to me now, talk to me now, talk to me now!” It’s intrusive and presumptuous to call someone on the phone, especially if—as is often the case—we presume that the other person ought to pick up the phone whenever they receive a call…and when the caller becomes angry if this doesn’t happen.
I tend to take the attitude, which I learned gratefully from my father, that my phone exists for my convenience, not for yours, and you have no right to expect me to be ready and waiting to speak to you anytime you decide to call. You also don’t have any right to feel hurt or outraged if I don’t pick up. Nevertheless, that expected disappointment engenders real feelings of guilt in those of us for whom a phone call is a trial, for even if we maintain our stance as a reasonable one, we are nonetheless subject to societal pressures of expectation and rejection.
I have several reasons for finding phone calls uncomfortable, and I’ll try to convey at least some of them here. First, talking on the phone is a part of my work; it is so now, and it has been for many years. When I was a practicing physician, a phone call was often the prelude to being brought into the hospital in the middle of the night to take care of an ailing patient, or at least to try to manage some issue verbally, if a personal visit wasn’t necessary. As such, the phone truly is a useful technology, and is important, but it’s not necessarily an entirely positive thing, and is certainly not a joy. In the world of phone sales, it is even less so; I doubt that I need to go into the reasons for that.
More importantly, though, a phone call is a physically unpleasant process for people like me, who have a significant degree of hearing loss. Mine, specifically, is highly asymmetric, and is much more pronounced on the right side, where multiple ear infections over time have led to significant conductive deafness and constant, often painful, tinnitus. The unilaterality, or at least the asymmetry, of the hearing loss leads to havoc in the processing of verbal signals, since the brain really does manage sound differently on the right and left sides. This makes most noise—especially loud noise, but also noise of mixed sources, such as that of multiple voices—come across as a chaotic cacophony. Being in a room full of people, especially with music playing in the background, can be like sitting in the engine room of a large ship (something with which I am familiar), or being in a fully active automobile factory (something with which I am also familiar). It’s not conducive to comfortable communication.
Talking on the phone, one might think, would be better because it’s unilateral in the first place, and can be restricted to a single side of one’s head—indeed, until recently, it was always thus one-sided. I am absolutely forced to talk on the phone using my left ear only, since putting a phone to my right ear is about as useful as putting a whiteboard eraser there. If I plug my right ear, it has almost no effect on my overall ability to hear, and if I plug my left ear, I might as well be underwater. But just because my left ear is better than my right doesn’t mean that it’s good, and communication is difficult even on that side. When I use my phone, I’m forced to crank the volume up very high—eliciting a recurrent warning from my cell phone that listening at high volumes for prolonged periods can lead to hearing loss. I’m aware that this is true, and it makes each conversation a compromise between the present and the future, knowing that by overcoming my limitations in the here and now, I’m purchasing an inevitable increase in those limitations over time.
Also, even with the pumped-up volume, verbal communication over a phone is still incomplete, and doesn’t adequately simulate the normal, personal interchange of a live conversation. Humans aren’t just auditory organisms, and our communication isn’t just verbal. Body language, facial expressions, and even the movements of the lips themselves contribute to the quality of a conversation. A phone call blocks all of these, and this is especially problematic for those of us who rely upon extra cues to fill in blanks of information that our ears miss. Phone calls thus become situations of real confusion and anxiety for those with relative hearing deficits. Compared to this, written communications, with their opportunity to reflect, to choose one’s words carefully, to weigh how best to express one’s desired message, have a real advantage, especially in the era of the emoticon and emoji. They also can reduce the degree of urgency, and thus anxiety, that is engendered by would-be real-time communication over the phone.
Of course, I realize that not everyone is as comfortable with the written word as I am, and that some people find sending such communication as fraught with anxiety over failure to get one’s point across and to understand as it can be for people like me who have trouble with phone calls. I sympathize with this, and would never consider dismissing it out of hand. I can only say that I do try to be patient and understanding, even if someone puts something awkwardly when they commit it to writing. Goodness knows I fail to get my own written point across often enough, and written language is my greatest joy, and one of my greatest skills.
On another level, though, phone calls are—for me, anyway, and for many others like me, I suspect—an occasion of significant stress. Struggles with depression often lead people like me to the conclusion that no one could really want to hear from us, anyway. People may think that they want to hear form us, but that’s only because they don’t know just how pathetic, how miserable, how disgusting we really are.
It often feels like the height of insupportable presumption for me to imagine that anyone would have any beneficial experience from any social interaction with me whatsoever.
When a person is depressed, it can be difficult and unpleasant for others to be around them; when one is the depressed person, one is often acutely aware of this—especially when one’s troubles with depression have destroyed or ruined important, crucial, absolutely essential, past relationships—and one tries one’s best not to allow one’s depression to show. One pretends to be upbeat and positive, strives to deny any troubles or worries, all the while feeling as lonely as the damned, and wishing for death—for one’s own sake and especially for those who must endure one’s presence, which is surely never a positive one.
Thus, any communication can be an ordeal, an exercise in pretense and masquerade, and real-time, imperfect communication over the phone is doubly so because of its immediacy and its limitations.
I can’t honestly understand why anyone would want to be friends with me in the first place—I know that I don’t like having me around. But when I at least try not to be unpleasant in conversation—because I have no right to inflict my negativity on others, and so disguise it as best I can—it becomes that much more difficult, and a source of existential fear. What if I fail? I’ve already lost some of the people who mean the most to me in the world because I am a thoroughly unpleasant person with whom to have a personal relationship. Why would I want to risk sabotaging the good-will of people who might imagine that it would be worth talking to me, when by doing so I would reveal to them that they are incorrect?
So, phone calls are simply the worst form of an already torturous process of interpersonal interaction. But to have it put out there, by some perhaps well-meaning meme-creator, that a phone call is somehow better, or more personal, more desirable, than a text message, or an email, or a letter, makes matters that much harder and more guilt-ridden. Not all of us are adept at phone conversations, and many find them daunting and physically unpleasant.
In closing, I’ll make an apology to anyone out there who might be misguidedly optimistic enough to think that they would want to interact with me: I’m sorry that I don’t call. It’s not you, it’s definitely me. Phone calls, though, are often painful, physically confusing, uncomfortable, and anxiety-ridden for me. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
And if not receiving calls from me leads you to write me off as a bad job, well…you wouldn’t be the first to decide that about me; many have done so for many different reasons. You’re probably better off without me bringing you down, anyway.