Technology’s Child: Why 21st-Century Teens Can’t Talk On the Phone
The other day I called home after receiving an “Are you okay?” text from my mom (Backstory: I’m living in New York this summer and my parents are rightfully concerned). My mom works at home, so I was expecting to hear her voice answer the phone. Without really knowing it, I had my conversation all worked out (Hello? –>Hi mom, I’m fine. Stop worrying. Love you, bye. –>Call ends). Instead, a deep, male voice picked up. “Does not compute, does not compute,” my internal system blared. This glitch wiped my entire mind clean, including the section on proper phone etiquette.
“Um… who is this?” I accused.
I don’t know what I thought was happening, although it was probably along the lines of “A burglar is in my house using my telephone!” Luckily, my dad recognized my voice.
This may be the moment I finally admitted to myself that I am useless on a telephone. Let me g-chat, or text, or Facebook message, or e-mail and I am well-mannered, perhaps even witty. But over a telephone, I degenerate into a mumbling ball of non sequiturs. To compensate, I have been known to write a telephone script before I make a call to someone who is not family or a close friend (ie; anyone who is not bound by habit to love me).
“Hello,” I type out. “I was wondering if this Dominos Pizza has free delivery. Thank you. Good-bye.”
Something about the telephone makes it completely incongruous to the staccato flow of written communication I’ve grown accustomed to. A telephone call manages to be both too slow and too fast. Unlike an e-mail, you cannot erase what you just said if it’s grammatically incorrect or mispronounced. And people usually find it awkward if you take longer than half-a-second to respond. The conversation zips past me like an unleashed dog and I find myself exerting all my energy in keeping up, leaving none for the “making sense” department. At the same time, the conversation feels like a complete time-suck even when most phone calls last less than half an hour. An e-mail conversation could take up an entire day, but it feels faster because it’s broken up into little segments. You have to make time for a phone call, but a text or a Facebook message can be sent out during a lecture or a bus ride.
But for me, at least, the biggest concern is that I’ll end up sounding unnatural or awkward—more robot than human. Before I send out an e-mail, or even a quick text, I will reread the damn thing at least three times to make sure not only that there are no typos, but also to see if I’m formal/informal enough without sounding forced, if that joke was actually funny, if a semi-colon there will make me seem douche-y—you know, the normal stuff cripplingly self-conscious people think about. To me, writing an e-mail is like doing a problem set in pencil; talking on the phone is like using a permanent marker.
Not to be a drama queen, but phone conversations are the absolute worst things ever.
However, I believed for a while that my ineptitude with phone calls was a unique deficiency. Until someone called from an internship I had recently applied to. One of the first things she asked me, after the necessary niceties, was, “Do you know how to take a phone call?” The question sounded like an accusation—the call had awoken me at nine in the morning and I had answered with my customary morning croakiness—and I began to panic. She knows, I cringed, she knows I’m a freak.
This wasn’t the case. She asked as a precautionary measure because, surprise, surprise, she had had other interns in previous summers who could not handle a simple phone call. “They would be so rude when they answered,” she complained. “They wouldn’t even announce who they were when they picked up. Do you know how confusing that can be, not knowing who you’re talking to on the other line?”
“That’s awful,” I commiserated, while scribbling down notes. “What else do we—I mean, they do?”
She repeated her concerns so many times that I started to realize, hey, maybe it’s not just me. And that got me thinking that perhaps phone conversationalists are made, not born. After all, one would think that someone who is as useless over the phone as I am would be just as awkward in a face-to-face conversation. What’s the real difference, except the visual element? But the visual element is key in reassuring me that I’m doing okay. There is still the issue of not being able to revise what’s coming out of my mouth, but at least I can tell when I’ve put my foot in it. I read Cosmo; I know about body language. And I don’t need an emoticon to tell me if someone is happy or not. Over the phone, however, there is no cheat sheet. How am I supposed to know if the Dominos Pizza manager has crossed his arms—indicating that he is guarded and that I should stop grilling him about whether or not his pepperoni was raised organically—over the phone? And am I expected to be able to hear my interviewer’s eyes crinkle—indicating genuine amusement—as she laughs at a dumb joke?
And there it was: I don’t know how to talk naturally over the phone because it isn’t natural for me. Proper phone etiquette was never ingrained in me from an early age. When I was younger—okay, even now—when the house phone rang, I let it go to voicemail. If it was important, I reason, they’ll leave a message that I can return via e-mail, like a sensible person.
People who grow up using their dial-pads for the letters rather than the numbers on them do not know how to talk on the phone not because they are socially awkward, but because they are ill-bred. I’m using that term lovingly. This population of young adults grew up when house phones were becoming obsolete, when voicemail came with every phone, when a QWERTY keyboard was more important than an unlimited talk plan, when the “Whassup” dog ad campaign gave kids everywhere a cooler way of greeting people. And every business that wants to survive has an e-mail address—for Pete’s sake you can even order Dominoes ONLINE now (although not if you want your pizza delivered to a college dormitory). We couldn’t pass Miss Manner’s phone etiquette test if our friends were texting us the answers.
How do you expect someone who’s never been in water to know how to swim? And I can bet you that for many young adults, having a phone conversation with a stranger, or even an acquaintance, would be like jumping into the deep end. So the next time you (by which I mean any reader who was taught to answer the house phone with, “Hello, this is the so-and-so residence, your-name speaking”) have a floundering phone conversation with a Generation Z-er, don’t be so quick to judge.
Blame our parents. It’s not our fault they didn’t raise us right.
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