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Who’s Calling, Please?

I showed a movie to my journalism class the other day, and in one scene a reporter keeps getting a busy signal while trying to call a source.

“What’s that noise that keeps happening on the phone?” one of my cherubic freshmen asked.

I paused the film. “Huh?”

“That beeping. He keeps calling and the phone just beeps.”

“The busy signal?” I said. And then it hit me. These kids don’t know what a busy signal sounds like.

My initial reaction was to chide the student for being ignorant. Teenagers can be so self-absorbed that everyday nuggets of knowledge often fly right by them unnoticed. 

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, shit, when was the last time I heard a busy signal? In the era of call waiting and voicemail and texts and FaceTime, there’s very little opportunity to get blasted in the ear by the grating tones of impatience.  

I’m not under the illusion it’s any great loss that kids of the next generation have never felt the frustration of hanging up and trying again later, but it’s pretty insane to me that in the course of my lifetime, technology has advanced to the point that a high school student of above-average intelligence cannot identify the cadence of a busy signal.

It was, after all, a part of the very fabric of my childhood. How many afternoons did I spend listening to busy signal after busy signal, trying to call Y100 to request The Offspring’s “Self Esteem” or Green Day’s “J.A.R.” or later, as a token of affection to a girl I wanted to impress and/or kiss on her cigarette-flavored mouth, “Little Things” by Good Charlotte? No need now. I can summon Benji and Joel with the click of a Spotify button, making the gesture a little less noble.

I know there’s a lot of research out there saying kids are addicted to their phones and it’s killing the art of the conversation. I don’t disagree; if you ever want to see what true addict behavior looks like, take away a teenager’s cell phone and watch him bargain, beg and fidget like a meth addict angling for a fix. And yes, I am bitter in a get-off-my-lawn kind of way that teenagers will never have to know the knee-bouncing agony of waiting for their mom to get off the phone with Aunt Gert so they can use the house line to flirt with Roxanne from concert band, or memorize multiple phone numbers and custody schedules in order to avoid awkward exchanges with their girlfriend Kelly’s dad, who has the kids next week, sorry.

But I, for one, am incredibly pleased that phone calls are cruising toward obsolescence. Despite being a grown-ass man who has never once slid into someone’s DMs, I have an unwavering pro-text agenda.

It’s not that I’m anti-social or don’t enjoy invigorating discourse. Talking on the phone is stressful, man. It’s a medium that requires significant engagement, almost as much as being in person (though admittedly, you CAN do stuff like poop when you’re on the phone, which is generally frowned upon in face-to-face interactions). Phone calls strike me as invasive and downright oppressive. Why are you telling me about your trip to the dermatologist while I’m in the middle of watching the Ken Burns Vietnam miniseries? LET ME LIVE.

Text messages offer the best of both worlds. I can make a sandwich, read a book, or rotate the tires on my truck while maintaining a sustained tete-a-tete with my friend Scott about the ineffectiveness of the Eagles’ secondary. When the conversation has reached its natural conclusion, there’s no awkward dance over saying goodbye, no “weeeeeeeeeell, I’d better let you go,” as though the subtext of this conversation bores me is not abundantly clear. You just stop responding. Dialogue complete, end communication. A far more effective use of time, if you ask me.

Back in the day, I had no other choice. I was a girlfriend guy throughout my entire adolescence and spent my formative years moving from one seven-month relationship to another. An expectation in each of those relationships was that any unencumbered moment of time was to be spent in deep conversation with my significant other on the telephone, lest she think I no longer liked her. 

Researchers suggest we spend an average of one third of our lives asleep. While I never conducted a scientific study, I’m willing to bet I spent whole years of my life laying supine on my bed with a receiver to my ear, my brain racing to devise some topic of conversation my flavor of the month girlfriend and I hadn’t yet completely exhausted. You know that old trope where a couple in a failing relationship stares at each other, searching for something to say, and one of them eeks out the phrase “whatcha thinking about?” That summarizes the content of almost every three-hour phone conversation I had between 1998 and 2002. My dad has described to me what happens during a prostate biopsy and it sounds more tolerable.

More painful than those vapid conversations were the Friday night phone calls I’d get from friends at sleepovers. You think feigning interest in talking to a 16-year-old with nothing to say is mind-numbing? Holy Christ. Try talking to one who’s ALSO giggling with six of her dumbass friends while they take turns sipping a bottle of pineapple Smirnoff Ice at the same time. I mean, I wanted nothing more than to know what a girl’s nipple looked like, but some juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.

Then there were all the rules. Because phones have been around since before little Timmy was always falling down that goddamn well, there exist pieces of quixotic etiquette in how to properly conduct a phone conversation. Even Emily Post’s blue book guide Etiquette (whose 1942 edition for some unknown reason graces the bookshelf in my living room) contains several guidelines on telephone usage: announcing one’s name on, arranging informal visits by, used for simple invitations, increasing use of, when using a neighbor’s, privacy of, use of in an office, and announcing names on.

Though we as a society have thankfully moved past a lot of these arbitrary customs (page 619 of the Post guide states: “As an unhappy wife, her dignity demands that she never show her disapproval of her husband, no matter how publicly he slights or outrages her”), many phone rules hung around well into the turn of the 21st century.

For a good chunk of my childhood, my parents forced me to answer the phone with the phrase “hello, who’s calling please?” just in case, you know, some serial killer or Democrat was on the other end of the line. I was also instructed to never cut to the chase and ask for my friend directly. Hi, is Bill there? Instead, I was to draw out the interaction as long as possible to ensure my friends’ parents knew I had been raised to be a polite young man. Good afternoon, Mrs. Jones. This is Sam Hedenberg. How are you? That’s good to hear; I too am well. I was wondering if your son William was available to speak to me briefly on the telephone?

Thankfully, the advent of alternate communication technology has pushed us away from these antiquated and painful methods. But even though text messaging and sultry-voiced virtual slaves like Siri and Alexa have completely replaced the need for voice communication, there are still some jerks who refuse to get with the program.

The first one is my mom, which, to be fair, makes sense. I’ve talked to my mom on the phone at least once a week since I left for college 16 years ago, and our phone appointments have endured through every iteration of Razr, Sidekick, Blackberry, and iPhone. 

Mom calls me every Saturday morning around 9:30 and always begins the conversation the same way: “hi. Did I wake you up?”

I’m assuming she says this because there was once a time in my life when I was still asleep at 9:30, when I was going to bed around the same time she was shuffling into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. Despite trying to explain that I’m now an adult with a house and two kids, my mother will forever see me as a 22-year-old out drinking Yuenglings until the manager at Austin Grill kicks me out so he can set up the brunch buffet.

“No, you didn’t wake me,” I say to her, “but only because I’ve been up for four days on a coke bender. How are you?”

Then there’s my friend who’s a car talker and calls me whenever he’s driving somewhere. He’s a great dude but has severe ADD and can talk the paint off a fucking wall. I assume I’m one of a dozen or so entries in his word diarrhea rolodex, and about twice a week, my name comes up in the stream-of-consciousness lottery.

When I see his name flash on my phone’s screen, I transform into Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, scrawling cost-benefit equations on a chalkboard in my mind. How much phone time is our friendship worth? How many words and sentences am I willing to endure to maintain a positive relationship with this guy? Have I made any recent deposits into our mutual bromance account?

Nine times out of 10, I slap that big red decline button like a basic white bitch in a catfight at a Filene’s semi-annual sale. Sorry, bro.

My wife will also call me on occasions we’re apart. I do genuinely enjoy hearing from her when she’s gone, but once we catch each other up on relevant information, there’s always a significant amount of dead air.

I’ll sit there listening to her breathe into the microphone for a second, waiting for some sort of transition, and then I’ll get shitty.

“Is there anything else, orrrr…?”

“No, that’s about it,” she’ll say.

“Okay, so…are we done?”

My hope is that one day, the phone call will become as obsolete as vinyl: used only ironically or by nostalgic hipsters emphatically defending the superiority of an outdated medium. Phone calls just have so much more, like, soul, dude.   

And if my high school students’ knowledge of busy signals are any indication, my dream is not that far away.

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One thought on “Who’s Calling, Please?

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  1. This really brought me back to my own high school experience when I never had a girlfriend but seemed to still end up on the other end of those phone calls you described (one girl I barely knew used to check in with me weekly to ask me if I had a girlfriend and if it was because I was gay that I did not). There was also the whole “Is Paul there? (long pause) Oh did you want to talk to him? Hang on “PAUL!!!! MATT RALPH’S on the phone!” nonsense I went through every time I called one of my closest friends.

    The fact that you could look into big white book to get a number so you could call a classmate to ask them about their sexuality and had to have awkward phone exchanges with your friends’ parents boggles the mind now. This is certainly a good thing for us, but I feel like teenagers are missing out a bit on the awkwardness and struggle.

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