Last weekend I took the kids to their second grade teacher’s yard sale. She had a couple of old landline phones for a few bucks. I picked one up and showed it to the kids: “Hey guys, what’s this?” They had no idea!
I don’t miss landlines at all. But I do miss some important aspects of phone culture.
There is a Dave Chappelle bit—I forget in which special—along the lines of, “When we were kids, the phone used to ring...AND YOU HAD NO IDEA WHO IT WAS. You had to answer. Hello? It could be anyone!”
This I do miss. There is so much to be said for the human contact of phone culture that has been erased as everything has migrated to emails and texts.
When I was starting FSM in the early 1990s, business was conducted over the phone. Packages, important documents and thank–you letters were sent by post. Email was something they used only at universities.
But everything else was on the phone.
I used to make a round of calls to Los Angeles (from Martha’s Vineyard or Amherst) for each almost–monthly issue of FSM: to agents, publicists and record producers. They’d fill me in on the news to announce in the latest issue—but it was also a nice way to stay in touch with people.
I had several long-distance “phone pals” over the course of my life, usually older friends and mentors, who taught me so much about life and art. I would learn all about Sam Peckinpah from Nick Redman, for example, for hours at a time.
Back in the day—you didn’t need an appointment! You’d call, and if they were there and available, you’d talk. If not, they’d call you back.
There wasn’t any judgment, like, “Ewww, who are you to be calling me?”
You could change your life by cold calling! I did it all the time. When I was a little boy, my voice was very high, and I was often mistaken for a girl on the phone. This sucked, and I didn’t like the phone—lots of kids don’t—but in my teens I grew comfortable with it.
I can’t emphasize enough how much the world could open up by cold calling. There were lots of dead ends, but if you were charming, and nice, and human...people would give you a moment to make your case.
And you could make friends, just randomly. Producers, assistants, spouses...seriously, it was amazing...
And it’s all gone now.
I realized it was gone maybe five or six years ago when I called somebody I didn’t know very well, but he had vacationed on the Vineyard. I was just trying to be friendly and ask how it went, and see if this might lead to anything work-related. I got a very chilly, “I’m working, I’ll call you back.” As in, “You are weird, I will not call you back, go away forever.”
It’s quite possible I was pushy, obnoxious and in the wrong. So, sorry about that.
But I realized—nope, it’s over. From now on, you text first. The only people you ever call without an appointment are family, close friends and old people.
Thus we are in email hell. Emails are begging letters. There is no dignified way to write a begging letter. On the phone, you could be funny, you could be interesting...in email, it just sucks.
The key to a cold call is not just to ask for something you want, but to offer something. And you’re really offering you—if you’re clever, interesting, witty, pleasant, genuine.
You just can’t do it by email. I mean, you can, but people receive emails in such a different way than a human voice on a call—it’s easy to delete emails, without even reading them. At least on the phone, you could get an answer, even if the answer was, “Sorry, can’t help you.”
To be sure, there are a lot of aspects of phone culture I do not miss. I don’t miss the phone tag, the games, the voice mails—not to mention the occasionally frosty interactions.
But we’ve definitely lost something that was very human.
We’ve also lost simple expedience: the ability to just call and chat and work out our problems, as opposed to go through an email back-and-forth just to set a call for Thursday at 3pm, and then do it. Sigh.
By the way, I didn’t have an iPhone until 2008 or so. I had cell phones, but I seldom used them. So if I talked to you on the phone prior to 2008, chances are I have your phone number memorized. But post-2008, I couldn’t even say what area code you are in.
One last anecdote about the kids. I was telling them, maybe a year or two ago, that when I was a kid, we had a television set that didn’t have a remote control. If you wanted to change the channel, you had to get out of your chair and walk across the room. Madeline looked at me, wheels turning, and said, “So it was a touchscreen?”