Mar 282011

The telephone call is now officially on its way to joining the telegram on the scrapheap of communications technology, according to The New York Times.

Phone Rage, by sharkbait, on Flickr

Phone Rage, by sharkbait, on Flickr

Thank God for that.

But before I vent on my feeling about phone calls, let me step back and attempt a bigger perspective. Nothing substitutes for direct conversation to accurately exchange information and authentically interact.  Much (most?) of this communication is non-verbal; Paul Ekman famously has identified “10,000 possible combinations of facial muscle movements that reveal what a person is feeling inside.”

Technology offers mediated communication, but one of the tradeoffs it demands is distorted emotional context.  A relayed message inevitably blocks or blurs the originator’s non-verbal cues.  Perhaps more importantly, the mediated communicator doesn’t immediately experience or have to respond to the recipient’s reaction; our human tendency to be cooperative during most face to face encounters isn’t engaged.  And then there is the way that technology tends to insert itself into the message–the medium is the message, after all–perhaps as a consequence of the warped emotional subtext.

Sherry Turkle, in her excellent new book Alone Together, observes that texting and social media is so devoid of human emotional connection that it ends up isolating us.  Other commentators often make similar points: technology offers an appealing, but fundamentally sterile and barren, mode for us to interact.

I have some sympathy for these arguments, but only with regard to asynchronous communications–those like email, Twitter and Facebook where the conversation isn’t in real time.  My feelings run very much the other way, however, when it comes to the telephone and its technology of simultaneous talk.

To my mind, the telephone amplifies and enables too much emotion.  Calls are fundamentally rude and invasive.  The premise from the start of telephony has been to drop everything you are doing and respond to that obnoxious ring. That lends an aggressive edge right from the start, and if the caller has something less than appealing to talk about (telemarketing, tense family dealings) emotional levels can shoot up very fast.  This is abetted by the habit of some callers to take the other hostage, in a sense.  If you are dealing with an insistent caller there is little you can do to subtly signal a desire to disengage; as long as they are talking there is an obligation to keep listening.  That builds frustration, and if emotions run high enough, it might seem necessary to end the call the same way it started: abruptly.

Whatever criticism is levied against texting, email and other new forms of communication, there is no need–and no way–to hang up on any one.