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Hold the Phone

Philip Terzian, chatterbox.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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My alluring wife was a Junior Leaguer, once upon a time, and got a big laugh out of a lecture she was obliged to attend on making “cold calls.” It was the first time either of us had ever heard the term, and she was especially amused at the idea of being coached about so simple a task as picking up the phone and calling a stranger.

Hold the Phone

Ken Westphal

I admit that I would not especially wish to be taught, as an adult, how to make cold calls; but an antipathy to calling strangers—and an abiding dislike of the telephone—is neither laughable nor alien to me. If either of us has to make a call on behalf of the household—whether, in phone company parlance, to a business or residence—I am happy to concede the privilege. My long-suffering spouse is alternately amused and annoyed by this reticence, and still cannot quite believe that a man of my age, given an opportunity to do his duty, would employ the Bartleby the Scrivener defense: “I would prefer not to.” 

The Freudian in me searches for an explanation for this behavior, and the only experience I can suggest is the childhood trauma—common to nearly everyone, I would guess—of being put on the phone when some adult relation had called long-distance. The ensuing dialogue—“Hello, how are you?” “We’re fine, thanks. How’s school?” “Pretty good, thank you.  .  .  .  I hope you and Aunt Charlotte can visit soon.” “So do we.”—was, for me, as awkward and painful as it was meaningless. Nor has adulthood smoothed out the mortification: I still freeze when the telephone’s hideous bell begins to clang, and thank whatever gods may be for answering machines and caller ID. 

I suppose there is a more charitable explanation. As a person of some conceit I prefer the monologue to the dialogue; and as a journalist I prefer to communicate through the written word. Indeed, if the words and phrases are in printed, rather than oral, form, I am as voluble as any cell phone user on the train: The language comes quickly, jokes abound, it’s a veritable Niagara of puns, tart phrases, and snappy repartee. Put a receiver to my ear, however, and the mind slows down, the thoughts evaporate, and one labored sentence yields sluggishly to the next.

Indeed, one of the nice things about email—or Facebook, for that matter—is that they nicely combine the immediacy of telephone contact without the voice-activated trauma. You have time to ponder your response, and refine the way you phrase it, or opt out altogether. On the telephone I feel as if I am testifying in court and a stenographer is taking down every misbegotten syllable. On email, or Facebook, or Twitter, I’m the Wizard of Oz: The “voice” and the pyrotechnics are basically theater.  

Of course, not everyone approaches the subject from this point of view, or gives much thought to practices that are second nature for most people. Yet I am intrigued to note that the young seem also to have an aversion to the telephone (no doubt for reasons different from mine) but exchange a colossal number of text messages every month. Most of these messages have only a passing resemblance to language—OMG! :( LOL! u rock ☺ etc.—but might also represent the same disinclination to deploy the voice when a better, more satisfying, substitute exists. 

This is especially evident to me when I am driving home from work at night. There is a particular intersection in Washington, off Farragut Square, where I must always stop for the light, and dozens of pedestrians cross the street or move along the sidewalk beside a subway station. A substantial percentage of them are holding cell phones to their ears, and during the warmer months I can eavesdrop on their conversation: “Hey! How ya doing” is frequently heard, along with “So what’s going on?” and “Hi! It’s me.” Which, roughly translated, tells me that my fellow urbanites don’t really use their cell phones for any practical purpose except making random contact. 

Which, to someone of my nature, is incomprehensible. When I was in college there were two forms of communication available to the average citizen: the telephone and what we now call snail mail. In my fourth-year dormitory, there was exactly one telephone, a pay phone located on the wall of a floor above mine; and in those halcyon days, a long-distance call between Washington and Philadelphia, or vice versa, not only was reserved for occasions such as a death in the family, but also required an inconveniently large supply of coins. 

I was happy to write a cheerful letter to my parents every two weeks or so, for which in exchange they would dispatch a welcome check. But I can say with perfect confidence that I never, not once, wasted an infinite number of nickels on a telephone call.

Philip Terzian 


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