March 29, 2010

Back in my day, phones were communal

When Blue-eyed Ultimate Player called my cell phone one day, it was because none of my sons were answering their cell phones. I didn’t know where my sons were — probably throwing a disc around somewhere — but I chatted with Blue-eyed Ultimate Player for a few minutes.

After I hung up, I thought about how I miss having one landline for the whole family. I used to chat with my kids’ friends or my husband’s friends when they called. I wonder if, with the proliferation of cell phones, that kind of small talk is a lost art.

I can remember the first phone call I ever made, back in first grade. I stood on a wooden chair in the kitchen, reaching up to the black phone that hung on the wall, and carefully dialed the number that Kindergarten Friend had written down. I was painfully shy, so calling anyone on the phone was a very big deal.

I called, and the phone made this weird noise. “That means no one is home,” Red-haired Sister said. I hung up the phone.

Then I called again. I got the weird noise again I called again, and got the weird noise again. I called again, and hung up again. I was frustrated because I knew that she was home; it didn’t make sense.

“Their phone must be broken,” I said to my sister. I dialed again, just to show her. I held out the phone to let her hear the weird noise.

Just then a man’s voice said, “Hello?”

I answered shyly, “Hello?”

Then I said the line I’d practiced. “May I speak to Kindergarten Friend?”

“I’m her Dad,” he said. “Was that you calling before?"

I was terrified — his asking me a question was not in the script! But his voice seemed gentle.

“Yes,” I managed to squeak out that one syllable.

“See, you need to let it ring awhile to give people time to get to the phone,” he said. “When you hear the ringing noise, count until you hear it ring ten times before you hang up.”

What he said made sense. For the rest of my life, I always counted until I heard the dial tone ten times before I hung up. That is, until people started getting cell phones and answering on the first ring.

For a shy child, chatting with the parents of friends I called was often terrifying, but it forced me to learn the skill of making small talk. I had to identify myself, say something polite, and then ask for my friend. That was the formula.

I miss the days of the landline, the way that sharing a phone helped integrate a community. Sure, the cell phone is convenient, but I’m sad that we’ve lost those conversations between generations. I guess I have to look instead for messages from my kids’ friends on my facebook wall.


Cathy said...

Phone etiquette is definitely on the decline - we were just talking about it this morning. Some folks at work who are of the cell phone generation have not learned the etiquette of landlines - or of phones in general.

I remember letting the phone ring a certain number of times before hanging up!

jo(e) said...

That's the confusing part -- landlines and cellphones have different etiquettes.

I still tend to say, "Hi, this is jo(e)" when I call someone on my cell phone. And the other person will laugh and say, "I *know* it's you. It said so on the phone."

landismom said...

When you posted a comment about this on my blog, I thought, "jo(e) is right! I remember having to talk to my friends' parents when I called their houses."

It's a little thing, but I'll miss it with my kids.

holly said...

there was a lot to love about the communal phone days. but now i never have to worry that my a certain nosy person is listening in on my conversations.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My kids' (elementary) school sent home a list of the phone numbers so the parents can arrange playdates, or whatever. Some of them have 2 numbers listed, one of the father's cell and one of the mother's. I am one of the last people I know who still uses a land line for primary communication. It's because I detest the phone & also because I keep misplacing mine! -- So I prefer a family line so that other people can answer it for me : )

Lorianne said...

When I saw the title of your post, I immediately thought of the hall pay-phone the girls in my undergraduate dorm shared, "back in the day" when we didn't have our own cell phones, and when you had to pay extra to get a phone wired into your room.

When someone called you, you had to hope one of your floor-mates answered *and* took the time to come get you in your room. Or when you called someone, you had to sit there with a roll of quarters to "feed the phone" while you talked.

How very, very different things are today, when every student has a cell phone and every dorm room has an Internet connection!

Anonymous said...

It's really hard having a first grader making those first calls these days, too ... trying to explain ANY kind of etiquette these days seems out of touch, and you can't count on the friends' parents to add anything useful.

Boy, does that sound curmudgeonly ... but it's true.

Twice said...

This is a really good point. I moved so much my parents rarely interacted with my friends when I was in school, but I think it is the same way with relatives. Because we have a land line, I speak with my father-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law on a relatively regular basis. The same thing is true for my husband and my mother.

Of course, I have trouble getting the school, the vet, friends, anyone, to understand they should not call my cell phone first. Our parents do though - they have land lines too.

I wonder if the social networking sites are popular in part at least because they do provide some of that peripheral contact, albeit asynchronously.

jo(e) said...

Twice: Oh, that's a good theory about the social networking sites. Maybe that's replacing the contact we used to have over the phone -- and at the store, the bank, the gas station, and all those other places that have been automated.

Danny Bradfield said...

Wait: you "dialed" the phone number? What exactly does that mean? ;-)

YourFireAnt said...

Danny: come over to my house. I have one of the original black bakelite rotary dial phones.


BrightenedBoy said...

On the other hand, getting in touch with people is way easier, and my experience has been that siblings and parents often have no qualms about answering someone else's cell phone.

Melissa Sarno said...

I love this story and can just picture you standing up on a wooden chair making your first phone call. For some reason, I have always had a irrational fear of the phone-- I can remember my mom putting the phone to my ear to talk to my grandfather and I was so petrified and shy! So I am very grateful for other means of communication and less small talk. :-) I prefer face to face over everything.

kathy a. said...

my nephew's friends think it is just the coolest thing that his family still has a rotary phone; they all want to call home, just to try out the dial.

when i was in college, one of the campus jobs was "proctor" -- answering the dorm phone, buzzing rooms to summon residents to the communal extention in the hall, and taking messages. [outgoing calls were made at the pay phone.] the proctor's desk was always a center of activity, since everyone checked in frequently to see if they had messages, pick up the news of the day, etc.

Kindergarten Friend said...

I remember my dad always waiting forever for someone's phone to ring. I never knew you talked to him and you were petrified! It's so funny! I'm thrilled I was the first person you called! I'm sure you were the first person I called but I can't remember. My memory is fading quickly in my old age....

jo(e) said...

Kindergarten Friend: Your first phone call was probably to either me or Red-haired Girl who lived near you. I think she used to come play at your house at about the same time.

Yeah, that's a nice memory I have of your Dad. At the time, I was surprised that he could figure out it was my first phone call. When I got older, I realized that I must have *sounded* like a terrified little kid.

Phil said...

When I was a small child, we had a party line. Our number was LEnox 4565. My college dorm setup was much like kathy a.'s, except the dorm operators were university employees and universally surly. We've had the same landline number for 35+ years, and I believe nostalgia is a big reason we still have it. I remember when we bought a second phone and had to pay extra for touch-tone dialing.

In the early 90s, we added a second line because increasing computer use was causing us to miss a lot of calls. We ended up missing the calls anyway, cuz our son would dial into a bulletin board on one line, and call his buddy who was also dialed into the bulletin board so they could talk smack about the other bulletin board people.