The decline of telephone conversations

Despite the cell phone revolution, people are talking on the telephone less and less.  The phones are increasingly being used for texting and for their other functions instead of calling people in real time and talking to them.  This is true of the younger generations especially, leading to conflicts with their parents and grandparents who complain that “you never call.”  So says this article:

A generation of e-mailing, followed by an explosion in texting, has pushed the telephone conversation into serious decline, creating new tensions between baby boomers and millennials — those in their teens, 20s and early 30s.

Nearly all age groups are spending less time talking on the phone; boomers in their mid-50s and early 60s are the only ones still yakking as they did when Ma Bell was America’s communications queen. But the fall of the call is driven by 18- to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen. Texting among 18- to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period, from an average of 600 messages a month two years ago to more than 1,400 texts a month, according to Nielsen.

Young people say they avoid voice calls because the immediacy of a phone call strips them of the control that they have over the arguably less-intimate pleasures of texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or tweeting. They even complain that phone calls are by their nature impolite, more of an interruption than the blip of an arriving text.

Kevin Loker, 20, a rising junior at George Mason University, said he and his school friends rarely just call someone, for fear of being seen as rude or intrusive. First, they text to make an appointment to talk. “They’ll write, ‘Can I call you at such-and-such time?’ ” said Loker, executive editor of Connect2Mason.com, a student media site. “People want to be polite. I feel like, in general, people my age are not as quick on their feet to just talk on the phone.”

The bias against unexpected phone calls stems in good part from the way texting and e-mail have conditioned young people to be cautious about how they communicate when they are not face to face, experts say.

Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University who studies how people converse in everyday life, said older generations misinterpret the way younger people use their cellphones. “One student told me that it takes her days to call her parents back and the parents thought she was intentionally putting them off,” she said. “But the parents didn’t get it. It’s the medium. With e-mails, you’re at the computer, writing a paper. With phone calls, it’s a dedicated block of time.”

via Texting generation doesn’t share boomers’ taste for talk.

I am not young, but my sensibility agrees with that.  I don’t like to talk on the telephone.  It seems like an imposition on people who are not expecting my call.  I usually don’t mind it when people call me–that is, members of my family or job-related folks–but calls from people I don’t know really can be significant interruptions of a usually busy day.  I much prefer communicating via e-mail.  (To prove that I am not young but old, I haven’t picked up the habit of texting.)  Are any of you the same way?

I don’t know why you say “hello”

One of our most common words is the greeting, “hello.” Do you know where that word came from? Did you know that it was once considered on the vulgar side, until it became redeemed by the telephone, which was once on its way to adopting “ahoy” instead. Thanks to Joe Carter for alerting me to this discussion by Nate Barksdale:

The history of hello is long and mired in many vowels. Though it didn't show up in its current form till the mid-19th century, its forbears are many and obvious: hallo, halloo, hillo, holla (a Shakespearean favourite recently returned to slang prominence), hollo, holloa—all generally being a combination get-attention-and-greet, useful for hailing passing boats and that sort of thing.

Drifting beyond the bounds of English, hello's roots diverge: is it from the Old High German ferry-call halâ, an emphatic imperative of "to fetch," from the antiquated French stop-shout holà, roughly "whoa there!" or maybe, as Wikipedia tenderly suggests, from the Old English hœlan (heal, cure, save; greet, salute; gehœl! Hosanna!)?

Tempting though it is to hallow hello (as Kleberg County, Texas apparently did in 1997, proclaiming "heavenO" the constituency's official greeting), its current ubiquity is tied to the telephone and the specific social and technological situations that the new device brought about. Initiating a conversation on the telephone involved two difficulties: first, the person might or might not even be there; and second, the caller had no way of knowing who they were talking to, and thus how they should be appropriately addressed.

For the technical problem, there were several early contenders. The British favoured "Are you there?" as a proper way of answering the phone, and in the days of newfangled and spotty phone technology, it was probably a useful one, saving the user the embarrassment of accidentally offering a personal greeting to the void. Once connection became commonplace, one assumes "Are you there?" must have lost its edge as the implications of its question drifted from the technical to the existential.

Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone's inventor, unsuccessfully promoted an alternative that outdid even hello for nautical implications, answering his phone calls with a hearty AHOY! (This tidbit opens up in me a great deep pool of longing for a pop-cultural world that might have been: Ahoy Kitty pencil cases, Jim Morrison crooning "Ahoy, I love you, won't you tell me your name," Renée Zellweger shutting up Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire with a tearful "You had me at ahoy!") But it was Thomas Edison who won the day (or at least claimed the day in hindsight), suggesting the old ferry-hail-whoa-there as being most suitable, writing to a business partner, "I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away."

Though it passed the technological test, Edison's ringtone was some decades in overcoming its social stigma as a low and crass word whose audibility at 20 feet was not entirely advantageous. In 1916, the business-minded Rotarian magazine lamented: "You would not think of greeting a customer at the front door, particularly one whom you had never seen before, by saying 'Hello.' What is good usage in face to face conversation is good usage in telephone conversations."

But it turned out to be the other way around. Hello streamed into the gap created by an unprecedented social scenario, gaining popularity and, little by little, respectability.

Read the rest of the discussion.


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