, , , ,

When my husband and I moved into our new apartment, we decided to share a cell phone for emergency purposes only rather than maintaining two cell phones, a landline, an iPad and three computers. We were feeling technology overload. To inquiring minds, we gave the benign excuses of budget and priorities. Many of our friends found this resolution absolutely absurd. “How in the world,” they asked, “can you survive nowadays without being in constant contact with everyone?”

I speak in this post to the social dimension of modern communication. I know from my years in the corporate world that the convenience of conference calls, faxes, video conferencing, emails and electronic signatures are invaluable in that realm. In the corporate world, my arguments hold little meaning. But since most of us have no choice but to live our professional lives so chained to these technologies, wouldn’t it be a blessed contrast if we could banish them from our private lives and with them the expectation of being constantly available?

Our friends and family remain stupefied as to why we are not each using a cell phone on a regular and constant basis. “But what if I call and you aren’t at home to pick up the landline and I need to talk to you?” Yes, indeed, that is the real issue, now isn’t it?!

Do you remember, dear reader, back when all people had was a landline telephone at home hooked to an answering machine? Some of you might even remember when handwritten letters were the most common form of communication. I can remember a time before automated answering machine servers and cell phones, not to mention Facebook or Twitter or Linked In, when life seemed a simpler. In fact, I was in my second year of university before I bought my first cell phone, and even then I shared it with my housemates.

Along with the efficiency of all the other aspects of life, constant contact, constant “reachability”, constant connection, have now become the norm. It wasn’t always like that. We weren’t always so obsessive.

The real reason my husband and I decided to give up using cell phones was an express desire to take back our privacy.

With all the modern forms of communication comes the expectation that anyone who wants to contact you at a certain moment has the right to reach you right then. Rather than the caller leaving a message should the intended recipient be otherwise occupied, as was the case before we were encroached upon by portable, instant methods of communication, the recipient now stops what s/he is doing to answer the call. Even though cell phones have answering machines too, that doesn’t hinder the expectation on the part of the caller nor the resulting pressure on the callee. If the cell phone rings, we know it is on and therefore the person called is aware of being beckoned. Have you noticed that when you are talking to someone and their cell phone rings in their pocket or purse, they are automatically distracted? If they are well-mannered, they might excuse themselves from the conversation your having with them in order to pick up the phone and have another conversation with someone else. If they aren’t as polite, they may just search around for the phone and answer it while holding up an index finger in your face. Does it not strike you as strange? Clearly the message is that the person on the phone, whoever it may be, is more important, more interesting, more relevant, than you who is standing in this person’s presence.

We seem to have lost all respect for the person standing in front of us, not to mention for our own time and the expectation of quiet on public transport. In essence, we’ve become vulgar. Has our expectation for and use of instant communication rid us of our filters, our manners and our modesty?

As a child growing up under my mom’s roof and even to this day, my mom will not answer the phone no matter who may be calling if we are seated at the dinner table. She forbids cell phones and computers to disrupt our family conversation. As a personal rule, she ensures that the person she’s talking to is listening to her and in return she gives them her full, undivided attention. I think we’ve strayed rather adrift from these basic principles of common decency.

Punctuality is another unwilling victim of our obsession with portable communication. Ever noticed how we are no longer on time to informal or social events? Could this not have something to do with the fact that it’s so easy to call last-minute and say we’re going to be another 20 minutes? Sure it does. Rather than planning enough time to get to our destination with a maximum delay of 15 minutes (permitted as casually late), we simply pick up the phone when we’re already late and call or send a text saying we’ll be another 30 minutes, knowing that the person waiting for us in the restaurant has his cell phone out on the table. We assume he’s already at the bar waiting and content to order another drink. But what would happen if that person waiting for us didn’t have a cell phone? What if they were waiting the whole 45 minutes outside in the cold? Or what is they assumed we weren’t coming and left? Wouldn’t we make more of an effort?

The diligent, perceptive reader will certainly call me out on the fact that I am right now using one of these forms of modern communication to write this post. But, in my defense, the internet does not engender the same expectations as the cell phone. When you send an email or a message through Facebook, you don’t have an expectation that the receiver will read it instantaneously, although this is changing with the use of smart phones. The internet provides a buffer, if you will. It is less intrusive. The sender of an internet message doesn’t expect you to respond within 45 seconds and the receiver therefore doesn’t feel any pressure to do so. Likewise, when I post this article tonight, those readers who so wish to read it can do so at their leisure. The internet relieves the receiver’s pressure by negating the sender’s expectation.

I feel bombarded when someone calls my phone several times. If I am occupied, I will call you back when I have time. If I don’t want to talk right now, then why should I be obligated to bend my will to a caller’s preference to talk to me right now? Leave a message. This is where the expectation of cell phones gets in the way. Not only is the expectation that a person owns a cell phone nowadays, but that they have that phone with them at all times, and that when it goes off it is to be answered. Right now.

I’m concerned that our expectation to get a hold of someone instantaneously coupled with the plethora of ways in which to do so – text, call landline, call cell, call husband’s cell, email, beep (do beeper still exist?) – have only aggravated and weakened our sense of privacy.

Can a person in this age ask to be left alone for a time and shut the door on the rest of the world? Is it no longer permissible that someone is not available to us at our beck and call? I’m only being half sarcastic here. In all seriousness, can we go back to a time when the expectation of instantaneous communication wasn’t an obsession of our social consciousness?

I miss the rhythm and reverence of the old-fashioned letter even though I was born on the cusp of the change toward modern advancement in communication. Long ago, when people received a letter they read it carefully, held something tangible between their fingers, and saw the emotions of their correspondent through the handwritten pages. Today we are reduced to 🙂 😉 😀 😦 etc, etc.

In France, the senior generations still haven’t lost the art of handwritten letters. And this is also a country of postcards and old-fashion calling cards and letters written with a fountain pen on a beautiful Velin d’Arches piece of paper. When French people go on vacation they send postcards back to all their friends and family telling a few words of the new place and wonders encountered. There is something quite special about seeing someone’s handwriting and knowing they took the time to buy the postcard, buy the stamp, and write a few words to let you know they were thinking about you.

Wouldn’t it be nice if in our personal lives we could enjoy those people we love in person or, if divided by long distances as I am with my family, in a meaningful, long letter or a mutually convenient phone conversation sitting in the privacy of our home in our favorite chair by the fire?

If you are so inclined, I urge you to take back your privacy! Go on, give it a try. Leave your cell phone at home for a few days. Feel the liberation. Handwrite something to your loved ones on a beautifully crafted piece of paper and let them feel you through your words. Go on, show the person standing in front of that you respect their time too by not reaching for the buzzing phone in your pocket. Go on, show your family they are the priority; don’t bend to a caller’s agenda. Go on! Take back your privacy! I dare ya.