Telephones as tools of social isolation

I don’t visit my friends any more. When I were a lad we used to have callers. We had a living room with the TV and the coal fire, it was somewhere to live and entertain. When people arrived, the TV would be turned off and the kettle would be turned on. Years ago, though, years before I was born, people used to keep a room for callers, the front parlour. It would be for special occasions, family events, funerals, high days and holidays and for when people would just turn up. Of course, visitors might be disappointed if their friends were out but at least they’d had a nice walk.

The idea of a front parlour would be a considerable luxury of space in today’s terms, although the reason for its disappearance might be as much the advent of central heating as anything else. The front parlour could be kept unheated if nobody used it whereas the back room, either the kitchen or adjacent to the kitchen, would be constantly warm.

parlour

But today I wouldn’t dream of calling on my friends regardless of them having a front parlour, living room or anywhere else, for fear of interrupting them. I would phone first. Previous generations used to just turn up at the homes of friends and not worry about interruption, Actually, today, I’d probably only visit a friend’s house if I had a prearranged reason to do so.

So, what’s going on?

I’ve read articles that claim people don’t answer their phones anymore. Increasing levels of spam calls, claims call centres, silent calls, recoded messages for oven cleaning, the Green Deal or whatever, outnumber real calls from genuine contacts. Of course, caller ID on mobile phones or suitably equipped land lines allow call screening. The suggestion is that people just don’t bother to pick up and some people report that they wait for the caller to ring off and then check the number to decide whether to call back.

This all seems terribly onerous to me. Life’s too short to go through that process. However, perhaps the increased blood pressure from the anger induced when I do answer spam calls might, actually, be shortening my life.

channels

But I think there’s another change underway. With the massively increasing number of channels as alternatives to phoning, text, Messenger, WhatsApp, we are choosing different mediums and becoming unused to phoning.

I’ve become aware that I have a, perhaps irrational, reluctance to phone people on their mobile lest I catch them in some situation away from home, when it’s not convenient to talk. I’d rather send a text because I consider it less intrusive. I’m beginning to feel the same way about calling people’s landlines. So, what’s that about?

It seems that the more connected we become the less we are willing to connect with each other. Smartphones have killed the art of conversation, or at least finished it off after TV initially stuck the boot in. My parents were prepared to drop everything for visitors, who would just turn up, because, without telephones, there was no way to check in advance. Interruption be damned, visiting friends was a normal part of life. But if we dropped in on someone today we’d not have the conversational skills and end up staring at our phones.

talk

Will we eventually get to the stage where we won’t be able to have a chance conversation with someone in the street because we haven’t planned it or got permission in advance? We’ve all experienced social awkwardness of conversations where small talk doesn’t pick up into spontaneous conversation. Many of us don’t know how to use small talk any more, and small talk, for all it is criticised, is the lubrication of social discourse. With such increasing insularity, how far away are we from the situation where we can only communicate through a machine?

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