Walsh's Wonderings — A questionable evolution

Robert F. Walsh
Robert F. Walsh

I’m always surprised when I see people answer their phone without looking at caller ID. It’s an act of so full of tolerance and trust that I have to force myself not to look for a halo.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Growing up, a phone call was an occasion. My siblings and I would bolt for the phone as soon as it rang; we never knew it was capable of ringing more than once. If the call wasn’t for us, we’d yell at each other to “make it quick” so someone else’s call could get through. We indulged in the adolescent fantasy that the world was desperately trying to get in touch with us if only it were able … .

The tyranny of the busy signal was the scourge of us all. In the days before God created the redial button, many of us wasted countless hours punching numbers until our knuckles ached. (I won’t even mention rotary phones.) It’s hard to believe now, but phone companies once made millions with “call waiting” because we just couldn’t handle the idea of missing a call.

Getting (and making) a phone call meant something; it represented real commitment from both parties.

Then came the answering machine. Suddenly, there was no such thing as a missed call. The pressure was off; we could “let the machine answer it” if we were in the middle of dinner. Still, we knew we were taking a calculated risk: what if they never left a message? Many of us, haunted by what we might miss, answered the phone simply to avoid the doubt.

That is, until the unsolicited phone calls began. Over time, the answering machine became a firewall, a way to stem the tide of telemarketers and pollsters threatening to overwhelm us. We’d let the answering machine take the call, then pick it up if we knew who it was. Our hope was that someone was offering us Knicks tickets, but mostly it was Dad asking why the computer was angry at him again.

The phones were soon untethered from the wall to the point they became electronic appendages, ever-present and needy. It’s never been easier to contact anyone in this country. Ironically, we answer our phones less now than ever. Many of us treat callers the way we treat people who ring our doorbells: with mistrust and bewildered frustration. “Who could possibly be calling me at this hour? It’s almost 4 in the afternoon??”

Our phones display the name and number of every caller, so each call becomes a referendum on our friendships: is this person important enough to merit answering the call in real time, or will you have to act as if your battery died?

I’m rarely faced with this dilemma because I simply never hear the darn thing. I miss 90 percent of my calls because I have the game on too loud. I actually had to activate the blinking light setting on my phone so I know when I’m getting a call from across the room. I’m one step away from needing a bat signal beamed into the night sky.

This is one of the reasons I’ve developed into an avid texter. Texting has all the appearances of human interaction without any of the actual humanity. The commitment of earlier years is gone, replaced by emojis and acronyms that require a Rosetta Stone to translate. One controls both the time and extent of the interaction without any of the inconvenience of really listening to the other party.

Somehow cellular phone calls have “evolved” back into good ol’ fashioned mail behind our backs. (Insert Pony Express emoji here.)

I’m not sure any of these innovations help misanthropes like me communicate any better. Instead, they simply allow us to hide inside our respective caves a bit longer. That being said, please keep trying to call; I promise I’ll keep trying to answer. (I just hope you choose to text me instead.)

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