Talking on the Telephone

An older woman talking on her mobile phone

If you’d asked me thirty years ago if I could go for weeks without talking on the telephone I’d have laughed and responded by saying, “When pigs fly.”

There was a time, not too long ago, when everyone talked on the telephone. I did. You did. Your mother and your grandmother did. Seldom did I ignore the siren ring of the phone perched on the night table beside my bed. 

Today my landline, as it is called, sits alone on the kitchen counter, a forlorn reminder of the hay day of telephone conversations. More than 95 per cent of the calls that come in on my languishing landline are intrusive sales calls, mostly from the impossibly ubiquitous duct cleaners or from offshore numbers. It’s all scams and useless sales promotions that I avoid like the plague. Most of the time, I don’t even bother answering.

Every few months, my husband and I earnestly discuss cutting our landline. We’ve already removed free long-distance calling from our massive package of overpriced goodies offered by the telecommunications company that charges us about $250 per month for home phone, cable, individual cable channels like HBO and the Internet. Usually, we agree that the landline isn’t necessary. Still, having been born in the 1950s, a strange feeling keeps us locked to this extra expense. Why?

I’m not certain if it’s nostalgia or the fear of an Apocalypse that was drilled into children during the Cold War that keeps us connected. That fear goes something like this: when the Internet comes tumbling down, when it’s hacked out of service, when the climate crisis impacts us –or when there is a nuclear attack– we’ll still be able to call out from a landline.

I wonder if that’s true? On a Sunday morning, in mid-January, everyone in Ontario with a cell phone received an emergency message around 7:20 a.m about the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.

As it was intended to do, the emergency notification woke me up. I looked at my cell phone and immediately decided to ignore it and go straight back to sleep. That’s how impervious I’ve become to text messages. The text wasn’t specific, and there wasn’t anything I could do about an accident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, located on the shores of Lake Ontario about 40 kilometres west of Toronto, I reassured myself. If it were a nuclear disaster in the making, this text would be followed by many more. What did follow was this: “There is no danger to the public or environment,” Ontario Power Generation said in a tweet sent at 8:06 a.m.

Supposedly, the first text was an error. The alert was sent during a routine training exercise conducted by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, Ontario Power Generation said. During that Sunday and into the next week, I couldn’t help but think about the false alert. Having watched the television series “Chernobyl,” I began to replay scenes from that terrifying nuclear accident in Ukraine that can be blamed on human error, shoddy construction material and the inaction and cover-up by the Soviet government that resulted in the death and cancers of countless numbers of innocent people, including children.

For me, the anonymous text sent to everyone in Ontario with a mobile phone on that Sunday morning was an actual wake-up call. It made me realize that no matter how accustomed I’ve become to a never-ending stream of digital messages, talking on the telephone to another human is a superior way to connect with those you love and care about. It’s better than just sending an e-mail or direct messaging.

For one thing, it’s more personal. To truly understand another person, I’m beginning to believe I should, at least, try to connect in real-time, and to listen to the sound of another’s laughter, anger or sadness. Let’s face it, the voice of a friend or relative says so much more than an emoji, an effortless way out of expressing genuine emotion. To know someone, you have to listen to them. Or to experience them in the same way we arrive at an appreciation of a song or a painting; and I’m not confident we can do that if we only text, in the manner that I did not experience the potential gravity of the Sunday morning emergency message from the Pickering Nuclear Station. The news was just another message, along with the hundreds of others I receive each day, most without meaning or impact.

This week I’ve made a point of talking on the phone to people I care about. First, to a friend at the other end of the continent who is not well after a difficult surgery. I was concerned about her, but when we spoke on the phone, and I could hear her voice, strong and confident, I understood she was on the path to recovery. Second, I talked to a former professor who guided my ideas and my writing from the time I entered university. He, too, lives at the other end of the continent, and over time, we’ve both been lackadaisical about staying in touch. He prefers to send handwritten letters, another beautiful way of communicating that has almost entirely lost its currency. At the same time, I’m all about typing on my computer. 

This week we talked in person on the telephone. I was thrilled that we were still on the same wavelength about literature, politics, and all the essential things that have kept a fifty-year friendship going. 

So let us all consider dialling up our loved ones so we can hear the expression in their voices, the cadence of their sentences, the tell-tale giveaways that point to happiness or turmoil. Let’s be as human as we can be, whatever the circumstances.

I’ve decided not to let digital communications get in the way of communicating. It’s my one and only, albeit belated New Year’s resolution, and I hope it will become one of yours too.

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