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A New Connection with the Lost Art of Phone Conversation

The old-fashioned fuddy-duddy telephone—which once seemed as dated as Dorothy Parker’s short story “The Telephone Call,” in which a young woman waits desperately for a man to call—is suddenly back in style.

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Bette Davis in a scene from All About Eve, 1950

One of my favorite sentences in twentieth-century fiction is the one that goes: “She was a girl who for a ringing phone would drop exactly nothing.” It’s from J.D. Salinger’s short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which appears in his supernal Nine Stories. One of its pleasures is the partially inverted syntax of the sentence; another is how quickly Salinger’s description allows you to get inside the imperturbable head of the egocentric Muriel Glass, who sits in her Florida hotel room painting her nails, and is married to the mentally unstable Seymour Glass, whom she worries about not at all.

I’ve been thinking of this sentence in recent weeks because in this, our surreal and grim season of the coronavirus, everyone is suddenly dropping exactly everything for their ringing phones. The old-fashioned fuddy-duddy telephone—which once seemed as dated as Dorothy Parker’s short story “The Telephone Call,” in which a young woman waits desperately for a man to call—is suddenly back in style. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds myself spending hours on the phone with friends and editors I used to converse with minimally, if at all. Surely this has everything to do with the limited and mediated intimacy provided by our more recent modes of communication—email, texting, Twitter direct messages, chat apps, FaceTime, and now the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom—as well as with our longing for a more immediate, audible sense of connection in these harrowing times. (It may be a generational thing, or my own intractable Luddism, but video-chats just don’t do it for me; they seem stagy and artificial. Besides, who wants to look at oneself bobbing up on a screen that much, even with helpful hints from the likes of Tom Ford on how to look good on camera. Whatever the lighting and the angle at which one tilts one’s phone or screen, one always looks somewhere between wan and ghoulish.)

To think of Bell Telephone’s long-ago slogan “Reach out and touch someone you love” is to be reminded anew of the primacy the phone once enjoyed. Think of the centrality of the telephone in movies like Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which James Stewart, playing a photographer confined to a wheelchair by a broken leg, is forced to do much of his communication by phone—including to call the police to rescue Grace Kelly’s character, Lisa. Or of the heart-stopping calls made by the deranged and homicidal Jessica Walter to Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me (1971). Indeed, there was a time when talking on the phone, at least in films, had a somewhat sensuous quality to it—almost as sexy-seeming as smoking.

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Joan Crawford dwarfed by a giant telephone in an MGM Studios still, 1927

Although it seems as if the phone has been around since prehistoric times, it’s only a century and a half old—a technology that seemed nothing short of magical when it first appeared. As some of us may remember from high-school chemistry classes, Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish-born American inventor and scientist, created the first patented phone in 1876, apparently involving a water-based device (don’t ask me to explain), and his first, somewhat peremptory message was addressed to his assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” 

The first rotary-dial handset was made as early as 1904; Bell’s version of the “candlestick” model of phone followed in 1919; touch-tone dialing and cordless phones came in with the 1960s, and finally mobile phones arrived in the 1970s—still, for several decades, a device for speaking to people, until smartphones made that seem dumb. 

In 1959, Bell Telephone introduced a compact phone designed for use in the bedroom. It came with a light-up dial that could do double-duty as a night light. I can remember to this day my excitement when I, then in high school, got a white Princess phone, delighting in its smallness and distinctly feminine appeal. (Those Princess phones, which would go out of production in 1994, have since become collectibles.)

In this present age—one, arguably, of waning interpersonal skills—talking on the phone offers a unique way into reading another person’s cues. Although we generally assume that the best means of identifying someone’s emotions is through their facial expressions, particularly their eyes—the “window of the soul” and all that—a Yale study cited in Psychology Today in 2018 suggests that we may, in fact, be better at reading voices than faces, that we’re more emotionally intelligent on the phone. 

It is certainly easier to gauge someone’s enthusiasm—or lack thereof—about getting together than it is through texting or email, which are often, at best, emotionless and perfunctory by nature. I suppose emojis—the use of which my Luddism prohibits; righteously, I feel—are a way of conveying tonality, albeit in a cutesy, unnuanced fashion. There is research that suggests the human ability to perceive nuance in voices may have developed as an evolutionary advantage, ensuring that expressions of need and distress were perceived by our ancestors. There is no research I know of, however, on the evolutionary value conferred by a large emoji vocabulary. 

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Then, too, talking on the phone encourages spontaneous play; there’s something improvisational about it that can lead one into entirely unexpected directions. Of course, the downside of talking on the phone is how much time it can take up.

“Talking on the phone offers the pleasure, even sensuality of hearing a voice,” notes my friend Deborah, “but they are genuinely time-consuming. I don’t know how we ever got any writing done when we talked to friends for hours. It takes all day! You can wake up, shower, check in on your mother and two friends, go for a walk and then it’s dinnertime.”

In a moment when we’re all mandated to stay at home, staring into the middle distance, this seems, on balance, more of a plus. Until now, there were times I found myself missing the hours-long phone calls I used to have with friends well into the night, detailing the ins and outs of my life to a responsive person on the other end of the line. It made me feel unalone in my life and linked in a way few things did. 

So I welcome the return to phone calls, no matter how time-consuming they are—even if there will always be die-hard post-phone types, like my friend Ben, who abjures its pleasures and insists that the phone is a waste of time:

“I remember the seventies and eighties—the heyday of epic phoning—when the calls began at 5 PM and stretched on till dinner, and afterward resumed, lasting past twelve or one. And what was accomplished,” he wanted to know. “Transmission of gossip, by and large.”

Just so. I dare say it comes down to what your taste in social exchange is: whether you prefer it more remote, to-the-point, and controllable, or enjoy a more languid, digressive, and protracted mode of communication. My own preference lies with what that connoisseur of impassable differences, E.M. Forster, well understood: “Only connect.” I like to think that Forster, who lived to enjoy the heyday of the telephone conversation (he died in 1970), must have gabbed away to his Bloomsbury friends for hours, but who can say?

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