In one of its trend pieces that I hope to be true, the New York Times has declared that the telephone is falling out of favor. Pamela Paul makes the case:
“I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler, the interior designer, told me. (Alas, by phone, but it had to be.) “Sometimes I call my mother on the way to work because she’ll be happy to chitty chat. But I just can’t think of anyone else who’d want to talk to me.” Then again, he doesn’t want to be called, either. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cellphone because then people know that you’re there.”
“I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.,’ ” Mr. Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”
Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward. “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.”
I have a feeling that Paul, and most of her sources, are men and women with a healthy amount of self-confidence. That's because the article never hints at the biggest problem people like me have with the phone. It's not intrusiveness. In fact, my instrument (as Ernestine always called it) has never been busy enough for me to complain about it.
No, shy people hate the telephone for a simpler reason: You can't see how the person on the other end is reacting to what you're saying! If you have a lot of self-esteem, this isn't a problem (I'm guessing). You just assume that the other person wants to talk with you — or, in the occasional adversarial call, is afraid not to talk with you. Not seeing the person's face isn't a huge disadvantage, and it can even make things easier not to see him rolling his eyes or distracting himself by checking Facebook.
These days, reporters rely more and more on email, if only because it's become so difficult to reach anyone by phone. I don't mind communicating that way, even though it's often hard to decipher someone's tone and a lot (most?) of email inquiries are just ignored by their recipients. I can mask my shyness better through the typed word, and I don't feel at such an disadvantage against smooth talkers.
My preference for face-to-face interactions may not last, however. Researchers have discovered that older people are not as adept at reading facial expressions and — thus may not realize when they're boring the hell out of listeners. One experiment involved subjects watching the British version of the "cringe comedy" TV series The Office and failing to recognize what an ass David Brent was. As reported by Stephen Adams in the Telegraph:
Previous research by the University of Otago group has shown that people over 60 are worse at recognising anger, sadness and fear.
The researchers think this might be in part because older people find it more difficult to read the changing geometry of a person's face, which provides the brain with clues about their emotions.
Maybe when I'm older, I'll gradually convince myself that people do like talking with me — "They seem happy no matter what nonsense I spew out!" — and then I'll imagine them looking just as content on the other end of a phone call. Until then, if I have something to tell you, I'd rather do it to your face.