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Answering the Telephone for Personal Connection

No one is more amazed than me by how much I've enjoyed -- and benefited from -- this personal return to the telephone. I find myself thinking about these dear friends and family members more frequently, like they're a regular part of my life, as once upon a time they so deliciously were.
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After a youth spent diving at any ringing phone, I started screening in earnest when I was about 25. This was before caller ID, still in the prime of answering machines with tiny cassettes of whisper-thin black tape. The screening drove my roommate Amy crazy. She had to answer the phone, and often found herself writing out overlong messages for me because I'd made her promise to pretend I wasn't there.

About five years later, when we were no longer living together, Amy came over to the screening side. We both got to the point where we were surprised -- not to mention disappointed -- when somebody we called answered the phone. While the telephone wasn't a thing to be answered, the answering machine was. We were always quick to grab the phone mid-message for someone we wanted to talk to. Our recordings were full of "Are you there? Pick up. I'm waiting -- pick up."

Just as VCRs and DVRs untethered us from the tyranny of the TV schedule, so did this recordable voice. Then voicemail came, the dark, unscreenable period before caller ID, followed by cell phones, which told you who it was right in your very hand, except for those strange few who think someone's actually going to answer their blocked ID. But email was probably, as for so many others, the final nail in my personal telephone coffin. Is there anybody in the history of the universe who's ever enjoyed phone tag? Email solved all that, especially for anything involving factual information, scheduling and message conveyance. And email also obviated the whole time-consuming dance around Hi, How are you, Fine, Me too. Not to mention that I type really fast.

I was probably at the nadir of my personal and professional telephonic life when, in April 2011, I was interviewed for an October Inc. magazine article. The quote the editors chose to blow up huge, like my personal anthem, that surprised me in its subsequent Twitter and Facebook play? "Why would you ever call me when you could email me? God invented email. Go away."

And then I started talking on the phone again.

Fittingly enough, it was Amy who pulled me back from the brink -- coincidentally in the month or two following that Inc. interview. Instigated by her, we had a few random conversations in which we vowed not to catch up at all, in which one or both of us had to run in 30 minutes. Totally low investment, surprisingly high return. For years, I'd been avoiding my (invariably elsewhere living) closest friends' calls in a clichéd Catch 22: I couldn't talk to them because I hadn't talked to them in so long. With each "Let's talk!" I feared I'd fall into a deep, dark, time- and energy-sucking hole of a long, intense conversation in which I'd have to recount everything I'd done over the previous year. My phone would ring and I'd actually look at the caller ID names of the people I love most in the world and feel vaguely irritated that they were interrupting the TV show I was watching, that they had the gall to think I actually might answer. With Amy, however, I started to realize what my neglected faraway friends had been telling me for so long: We really could just talk for a few minutes, and phone contact didn't have to be any big thing. I began shocking myself by calling people -- unscheduled! with no previous emailed appointment confirmation! just to say hello! -- when I was driving somewhere. And often they actually answered the phone.

Soon, Wini entered the telephonic fray. She's my mother's best friend from childhood and has always been like an aunt or godmother to me. She loves me unconditionally, and because my own mother's been dead for 20 years now, that's pretty special. A few months ago, at the end of a weekend visit, Wini did something I later realized is exactly what my mother would have done if she'd been faced with my long-distance tendency to isolate: She lovingly asked if we could try a quick phone call first thing every morning that could be as short as "Hi, I love you, I'm racing, bye." At first I pooh-poohed it, but it turns out it's been surprisingly comforting to have that informal connection (almost) every morning. We have a continuity in our relationship that we haven't had for years -- and because the contact is frequent, I don't feel guilty when I can't do it.

None of this may sound terribly revolutionary. But for someone with deep-seated catch-up dread, a highly-consuming job and a tendency to hole up developed over many years of living alone, it's like waking up from a years-long deep sleep. There's a lot of evidence to show I haven't been alone in my previous personal-call-avoidant tendencies. In 2008, text messaging topped mobile phone calling; the length of phone calls has dropped significantly in recent years; and voice usage has been falling substantially in every age group except for those over 54. Rather than heralding the death of the phone call, however, some are saying that an evolution like my own will occur -- that text-based communication will allow the telephone selectively to shine in its own way. "The calls we do make will be longer, reserved for the sort of deep discussion that the medium does best," according to Clive Thompson of Wired magazine.

We could use that connectedness. Like me, many of us are living in isolation greater than our forebears. According to the 2000 census, three times as many people live alone as reported in the 1950 count. Removed from intimate daily communion, we grow used to our uninterrupted solitude, if not necessarily made more happy by it. Over the last six months, talking on the phone has made me feel less alone -- and not in a bad, what-a-hassle kind of way.

No one is more amazed than me by how much I've enjoyed -- and benefited from -- this personal return to the telephone. I find myself thinking about these dear friends and family members more frequently, like they're a regular part of my life, as once upon a time they so deliciously were. Their voices act like fingerprints on my ears, like auditory smells so familiar and comforting and primal. I feel more connected and have actually been happier as a result. One of my resolutions for 2012 is to connect even more by telephone -- and it's probably the only one I'll enjoy keeping.

Don't get the impression, however, that I'll be answering the phone at work anytime soon. For that, you'll need to make an appointment via email.

For more by Jen Bilik, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.