The Last Phone Stand

Before dials or number pads

Do you own a phone? Of course you do. You may even have two or three, or, like Liz Gilbert at the beginning of Eat Pray Love, eight lines. (Why eight? Why not six, or ten, or a baker’s dozen?)

How do you use your phone? Tragically for the development of social communication, according to a recent New York Times article, you most likely use your phone to send text messages. In fact, the article indicates that some people – you? – actually text or e-mail in order to set up a phone convo.

People, this does not advance the cause of civilization.

The human voice is a powerful thing, capable of incredible flexibility and tied to the brain in a myriad of ways. The physiology of word production bears signs that it’s a relatively late development in primate history. Beyond grunts that mean “food good!”, and simple language (“Food good!”) comes the cascading richness of spoken language, with its slides and sharpnesses, its drawls and clicks and tones which convey so much to the listener.

To pass up those for the control of a written message ignores what the human voice has to give.

More than vocalization, though, the use of a telephone for non-talking is about controlling what information comes into our sphere, and when. Man, that’s a boundless issue of power and control. Arresting the sea, anyone? If all we allow is non-vocal messages, we essentially eliminate the importance of voice, and ignore others’ voices. More than a bit reminiscent of The King’s Speech, no?

In the lovely French movie Avenue Montaigne, the protagonist, Jessica, remarks to a man she’s just getting to know, “There are two sorts of people. The ones who grumble, when their phone rings, ‘Who the hell’s calling?’, and then those like me who say, ‘Hey! Who can that be?’.”

Learning to live with others, to share their joys and woes, bear their idiosyncrasies (as they bear ours), to grow affection or even love for them as human siblings – that cannot be done by pressing buttons and pushing send. It’s a decent method for transmitting facts, not so hot on communicating essence.

In the sandbox, children learn to get along and they use their vocal capacity to do so, even if they’re still infants (the word means “without speech”). In a way, we’re all in the sandbox together: an earthquake in Japan affects people in California. In getting along, let’s be human about our methods. Forget the text message and the e-mail. Hang up the phone.

Then try again, this time by voice.

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