Today’s ‘telephonic idiosyncrasies’ and ‘absurdities’ will appear completely conventional in a matter of months…not years
Novelist Douglas Coupland marked the New Year decrying the fact that we no longer talk to each other1; the art of speaking has been replaced by data feeds, emoticons and status updates. “…arranging to speak with people on the phone these days feels a lot like arranging with a hygienist to get your teeth cleaned,” he asserts. “It has to be done, let’s just get it over with. Nobody likes speaking on phones any more….”
He then beautifully describes the role the telephone has played in his (and other people’s) lives, conditioning our behaviour, our gestures, even our vocabulary. It is a reminiscence; he is nostalgic for a bygone age – when we used the phone to talk.
I don’t agree. In fact, I see precisely the opposite happening; maybe the value and attention we pay to phone conversations has diminished – like the devices themselves, conversations have completely commoditised. But the practice of speaking over the phone is so ubiquitous, that most people barely notice it.
But I do. I recall being shocked at seeing – for the first time, in Sao Paulo last year – a customer complete an entire transaction without interrupting her mobile phone conversation. The coffee shop assistant’s greetings and attempt at conversation remained unacknowledged; it was the essence of automation without the technology.
I recalled the scene when I was renewing my passport in London later that year. The person in front of me became visibly distressed when obliged to remove one of his earphones to answer a series of questions regarding his identity. I say ‘obliged’ because he did initially attempt to conduct the entire interchange ‘plugged in’ with both ears! Again, I was astounded that someone could imagine completing such a process without any exchange with a real human, or that such an exchange would be considered an inconvenience!
Since their commercialisation, telephones – like no other piece of technology to date – have shaped and conditioned human behaviour. I remember my first phone call – standing on a stool at home; the recipient, Andrew Adams, from my village had invited me to a birthday party. I felt super grown up, even though I had to rehearse my script beforehand. I remember my first ‘experience’ of a mobile phone in the early 1990s; a colleague of mine was refused entry into a nightclub because he was carrying a large Ericsson mobile: “Who do you think you are – Gordon Gekko?”2 enquired the doorman, before closing the door.
The degree to which the telephone vernacular was shaped by the culture (or, perhaps helped shaped it) was revealed when I moved from Paris to Barcelona in 2008. After ten years in France, the telephone ‘bark’ had become second nature, especially for anyone daring to dial the wrong number. In France – and, particularly Paris – it is customary to berate the author of a mis-dialled number for the inconvenience caused and demand them to be more careful in future (‘Faites attention, alors!). Heaven forbid redialling the same number by mistake! Intuitively, I assumed the same logic in Spain until I accidently mis-dialled and was greeted with reassurance from the recipient of the call (‘no te preocupa cariño’ literally, don’t worry, darling).
The two approaches perfectly capture the differing social environments between Paris (initially confrontational, abrupt but dynamic) and Barcelona (zero confrontation, warm, but much slower).
Italians have another idiosyncrasy when answering the phones. The greeting ‘Pronto’ for any incoming call dates from the era of fixed lines and manual connections completed by (human) operators. Pronto means ‘(are you) ready?’ which was the logical question the operator posed to both parties before connecting them. And it’s still in use, even today, when answering any call – whether it be from a smartphone, Skype, Google Hangout or a Web conference!
In the early 2000s, one huge technology company which I worked for propagated internal information by so-called ‘voicemail chains’; these were messages left on staff fixed lines which were to be listened to and then transferred down the hierarchy, across the organisation. It seemed a bizarre approach to mass communications – even then – especially when a new layer of ‘compliance’ was introduced. Staff computers would not log on until the voicemail chain was listened to in its entirety and then passed on… I’m not sure how long the experiment lasted; but a time/motion study of the exercise would not have made pretty viewing!
We are all inextricably linked to our phones; and that doesn’t just mean data, but also voice – and I don’t think that is going to change. Habits and protocols that appear unorthodox in the first instance become routine (I remember being too embarrassed to even walk around the house with my Sony Walkman headphones at first, leave alone in public!). And these reflect the culture, nuances and particularities of where we live.
So Douglas Coupland is mistaken if he believes we have given up talking altogether. Talking has become commoditised, as the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ phone calls I overhear – even at the gym – confirm.
But talking is not under threat from technology anytime soon.