Wednesday, 5 September 2012


How in 2012 do you most like to contact people, to ask them something, to tell them some news, or just keep in touch?

Until the early 1960s, for many people it was done by letter and postcard. Or from a public phone box if it had to be a phone call, because it was important or confidential. Such as summoning the police, or an ambulance. Or some dire family news. Not very many homes had a telephone installed. My Mum and Dad didn't until about 1964 or 1965, even though the family lived in Southampton, a biggish city. I can still remember our number: 0703 57199.

How odd that I can remember that. It wasn't as if I was an enthusiastic phone user, despite being aged 12 or 13 when it arrived, and in theory quite old enough to have a bevvy of friends to chat with. But two things must be understood: I had no friends that I saw outside school; and our one phone was on a table in the hall, with absolutely no privacy. Mum and Dad could hear every word, as I could hear theirs, and believe me, their ears would flap if on rare occasions the call was for me. This made me terribly self-conscious and awkward about using the phone. I jumped when it rang.

I especially hated the traditional Christmas phone calls, and if there was time and opportunity I would duck into the bathroom, sitting on the loo for as long as the danger lasted, so that Mum couldn't say 'Oh, there's J---! Would you like a quick word with him?' and then beckon me over; or 'J---! there's Auntie So-and-so on the phone. She wants to talk to you.' Or even worse, 'J---! There's [some son or daughter or cousin I was supposed to be friends with] on the phone, come and speak with them.' I dreaded such invitations.

And I absolutely never made phone calls myself if I could avoid it. I hated the phone. It frightened me. I was clumsy with it. I was shy and awkward and gauche, and never knew what to say. There was only the voice to hear, sometimes a voice I didn't recognise, and it was all a poor substitute for a face-to-face conversation. Not that I liked those, either. I almost had a panic attack if it was ever necessary to dial a number. Dialling wasn't like punching number keys, or touching a modern phone lightly and playfully with your fingers. It was slow and deliberate, a wind-up, and the phone made odd clicking noises while you did it. It was so easy to misdial. The dialling process took so long that you were thoroughly tensed up by the time you'd finished. Then there was a hiatus, silence or whirrings that lasted for perhaps several seconds. I remember hoping fervently, during that silence, that the call had failed. But more often than not, there would be a sudden connection, the ringing tone would begin at the other end, and I would feel panic that had to be fought down. I dreaded the harsh click of the phone being picked up, and someone saying hello.

It was just as bad in the red public phone boxes. In the 1960s it was still common to be confronted with the old-fashioned type of apparatus inside them. A heavy black handset with twisted fabric-covered wires, and Button A and Button B to press as part of the procedure. Juggling with four pennies. Never good with complicated procedures, I was nervous and usually messed up the call.

So my early experience with telephones was entirely negative, and it was only when I started work in Southampton 3 Tax Office that I mastered the right technique for making and answering calls. It was a vital part of the job. Familiarity made me competent. I soon found that I could handle work-related calls. But I still disliked the telephone at home, or in the red kiosk, and all the old nervousness and clumsiness returned when I started dating. As time went by, and I acquired my first flat, then a house, and I got married, and generally joined the conventional family world, much more phoning was needed away from the office. I slowly conquered my problem. It became easier and easier to phone other people and speak to them on the phone - such as traders to find out whether they could come and fix something, or asking a shop whether they had something in stock, and at what price. But whenever I could, I'd write a letter. I was always good with the written word. I could be to the point, say precisely what I meant, get the reply I was looking for.

Oddly enough, mobile phones finally banished my fear. I bought my first one in 2000. I think it was the very different way they looked and worked that did the trick. Plus the fact that this was my personal phone: it was literally mine, under my own control, with a pleasant ringtone that I had chosen, and not some shrill noise that startled me to death. My first mobile phone of 2000, even though primitive compared to my latest phone in 2012, quickly became a very useful gadget to have around. My pocket friend indeed. My attitude to phone calls changed. I could make them, and answer them, with hardly a care. It was a novelty. It was almost fun.

But at home I still disliked using the domestic handset connected to the landline. It was out of my control. The caller could be anyone, and there was no indication of who was calling. When I did answer, it was either an annoying sales pitch, or someone who wanted a very long chat about nothing much at all. I grew to resent the intrusion. The intrusive effect was worse after I retired in 2005, because I was consciously trying to put structure into my life, lining up little jobs, and I did not wish to be diverted. Or if watching something interesting on TV in the evening, some documentary say, I did not want to abandon it and spend the next hour and a half speaking with a person who was entirely capable of putting it all in an email. How bizarre: I had put my telephobia well behind me, but the thing was still a problem because of its potential to disrupt my day, and stop me getting on with things.

Most of the people in my old life, my pre-transition life, stuck with the old-fashioned voice call. They either had no mobile phone, or only 'kept it in the car for emergencies', or 'couldn't work out how to text', or knew but couldn't be bothered. As time went by, I felt they were stuck in the past, and really had no business - if they wanted people to keep in touch with them - to spurn modern ways of communication. Most of the world was finding that texting (for quick messages) and emailing (for something longer and more content-rich) were both cheap and convenient; and ideal if no instant reply was needed. In fact, almost all the people I came to know from the end of 2008 were extremely text-minded, checking their phone constantly for texts if it didn't actually push the message at them with a notification tone. And they would probably reply within minutes - or seconds - because they were eager to read the message, and just as eager to reply. Reading and writing was in vogue again. It was now entirely possible to conduct a conversation by rapid-fire texting.

So in 2012 I would say that there is no need to make a voice call unless the matter is urgent, or if it's in some way essential to hear the voice. Lovers, then, might prefer a voice call. But if arranging a social evening out, texting several people simultaneously is much more efficient. And on modern touchscreen phones, it's all so much easier than using the multi-letter keys and 'predictive text' usual on mobile phones of not so very long ago.

It's history coming full circle really. Cheap and very efficient postal services in the later nineteenth century allowed everyone to send letters and postcards with the prospect of a same-day response. Having to rely on a written message wasn't a problem. The nineteenth-century was in fact regarded as the era of expressive little billets-doux, as well as the era of belles-lettres. And today we can accomplish just the same with emails and texts. I can (and do) carefully read a text or email over and over again to extract every shade of meaning from it, and copy it to preserve it forever if it's something I want to cherish. Much better than some voice call in which there might be a lot of noise, but not much accurately remembered, and precious little of the real message has got through.

Do you cling to the 'convenience' of the voice call? Or do you, like me, infinitely prefer a well-composed email, or a quick text, neither of which can annoy by calling you away from something else that must have your time and attention? A voice call is like someone at your front door, an unexpected caller. So many times I've hastily stepped out of the shower, flung on a dressing gown, and gone to my front door, only to find it's just some person selling solar panels, or canvassing, or collecting for old donkeys.

Ditto when the landline phone rings. Almost everyone I want to hear from texts me or calls me on my mobile phone. So if the landline rings I know it's 90% certain to be a call centre. Occasionally I do dial 1471 afterwads, just in case it was a real person. Nearly always I'm told that the caller didn't leave their number, and sure enough that means it was a call centre. I can imagine hundreds of phone numbers - maybe thousands - being called at the same time from some Far Eastern place. A tiny proportion of the hapless people called in this way pick up their phone and answer. Immediately the operatives are onto them, and, speaking very fast, they give you their spiel. This is communication totally debased.

The call centres are an all-day scourge. They're mostly offshore, so you can't stop them. So nowadays, unless I'm expecting a call, I just don't answer. And one day soon I may unplug the handset, leaving the landline clear for Broadband and emails only.


  1. Caller identification... I got this for the landline as soon as it was possible and it changes the way you organise how you deal with calls.

    Fewer people are using the landline and very few messages get left on the machine these days especially offering prospective work...

    Mobiles have arrived too late for me. Very few of my friends send text messages, very few really use their mobile phones much and hardly any use them enough to have a contract but just pay as they go so resent the high costs for the few calls they have to make! I hate to use a phone in public and can hardly hear the darn thing because of city noise anyway. Those who leave their machines switched on when out socialising and give it precedence over real live conversation are beyond the pale!

    Few know my number and it hardly does them any good because it is usually switched off. I use it so infrequently that when I got stuck in traffic last week the battery was dead. Trying to find a working phone box once out of the jam was hopeless, two broken and the third was full to brimming with books for loan...

    I like email especially since the post is now so stupidly expensive and unreliable, I keep being told that it is "old fashioned" and becoming used less and less, how can this be?

    You missed out the "unsociable media" which seems to have taken hold of everyone's senses...

  2. I agree with Caroline in regard to mobile phones. I use mine almost exclusively for business, that is I receive far more calls than I actual dial myself probably in the ratio of 95% received and 5% dialled and when I do dial it is usually just to return a call I had missed. I use the mobile probably 90% of the time for business, maybe even more. I rarely receive texts and will only text myself if I cannot make the voice call in response but usually I leave a voice message. Probably all mobile phone services and users take advantage of recorded messaging. Personally I hate texting for a couple of reasons, it is quicker to speak and more information can be passed that way in the same time slot. It is also an impersonal way of communicating, not a bit like emails or the kind of messaging we are using right now, even though these too are not the same as speaking the words. My attitude is that if I cannot pass a message in person or at least using my voice I much prefer to leave a voice message rather than a text. Should I ever need to use the phone in an emergency I do carry it with me. Where the house phone is concerned we have one that is mobile within a 300 metre radius of the station in which it normally rests. If we are remote from the station and haven't carried the phone with us around the house there are extension phones in many of the other rooms upstairs. I have one by my bedside and when I am in bed the mobile phone is with me too. Sometimes I will get a call, mostly for business, from one or the other. As for the callers identity I have unidentified callers barred access on my land-line but not on the mobile. Many clients request work but withhold their number. If I accept the work I ask them for a number in case I need to contact them. Other than for these things my phones stay parked up, I don't have a smart phone, don't want one, don't need one. I have better things to do than to waste precious time twiddling with them. Nobody sends me written mail these days except for business reasons, tax, insurance etc. but I love composing letters whenever I get the chance. At the end of the day, for me at least, face to face contact is better than any other method and second to that the privilege of hearing a human voice from someone who wishes to speak with me for whatever reason.

    Shirley Anne x

  3. How viewpoints differ. I absolutely agree that nothing beats face-to-face communication, but I hugely appreciate the ability to text and email, and modern living is anyway - like it or not - geared up to having skill with these methods.

    I have seen it stated that teenagers don't email, they post on Facebook. Maybe so, but they obviously text like mad as well.

    The demise of public telephone boxes, except in the most rural of locations, merely shows how life is nowadays based on carrying a personal communication device. The idea has been commonplace since Star Trek appeared on TV in the late 1960s. I personally can't see the problem with owning and using a mobile phone suited to one's needs. A modern smartphone (or is it now 'superphone'?) is absolutely right for me, because I do much more with it than just text and make calls. But for users who stick to traditional phone functions much simpler and cheaper-to-run models exist.

    It's a pity there's a split between those who dislike new popular technology, and those who embrace it with alacrity. I find it awkward if the only way I can reach someone (or they me) is by a voice call. It's actually a disincentive to contact them. By the way, I have for a long time past deactivated my Voicemail. I was forever forgetting to check for messages, did not like not knowing who had called before retrieving their message, and especially did not like the high charge for listening. It's old 1990s technology anyway.


  4. I relish the thought of leaving my phone at home when I go out sometimes or simply switching it off so that people cannot contact me, emergency or not. There is nothing more annoying to have a phone call interruption when dining out for instance and I am very happy that my phone doesn't work in my local pub (although some networks do). That is because it has a lead-lined roof and many signals cannot penetrate. Sorry Lucy but for me phones are a necessary evil and I use them only when I have to. It isn't about the ability to use one as you suggested, it's about actually needing and wanting one. I cannot think of one instance where I cannot get by without the need of a smartphone.

    Shirley Anne x

  5. I would also recommend caller id, several providers offer it free or for a little extra each month.
    Many people use social media to contact providers to resolve customer service problems which is a lot more immediate and cheaper than stamps.


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