When I Was a Kid We Had to Call People

rotary phone

This is a guest post by Sarah, originally published on Hundred Moon.

Yes, when I was a kid not only was Pluto a planet (my very educated mother just served us nine pies), but we had to pick up the phone and dial a string of 7 numbers that we had memorized to reach our friends. We also didn’t have caller ID, and while we had an answering machine, it was only accessible from one physical location. That was half the fun of going on summer vacations, coming home and running to the answering machine to see who had called during the week you were away. That’s right, back then we could survive for a whole week without giving our friends status updates. They may or may not have known we went to the beach, but they had no clue where we were tagged eating breakfast and with whom. And do you remember pay phones? Those used to be legitimate ways of letting people know where you were

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. Do they even exist anymore?

My stepsons, on the other hand, are in constant communication with their friends via the magically digital tin can known as Skype. Unlike most of their friends, they don’t have cell phones, but they have been able to circumvent being disconnected because they do have computers. Talking through computers? Who da thunk it? Upon hearing their frequent and disjointed chatter with their friends, this got me thinking about the vastly different world in which they communicate. It’s funny to sit here typing this and remember a day when parents would do anything to get their kids off the phone. If there were a day when the kids decided to talk on the phone all day instead of playing/talking on their computers, I think my husband and I would feel a sigh of relief. “Yes, yes! Talk on the phone, please.”

There are a few ways in which I see this modern communication paradigm to thwart what I would consider to be helpful social development, but please understand that at the ripe age of 32 my views are likely seen as outdated, and definitely in the minority. I am in a very small circle of people that don’t own a smart phone, though I by no means eschew electronic communication. I’ll email anyone under the table, and text messages are, well, convenient sometimes. But, isn’t something lost in picking up the phone and waiting for someone to pick up on the other end? Making a phone call as a kid was a big deal because you were calling someone’s house, i.e. you didn’t know who was going to pick up and were met with the social obligation of greeting whoever did pick up the phone. Is there something lost in this contact? Not only did we talk with friends, but frequently in the exchange of handing calls off we chatted with, and became familiar with, other family members. This seems inclusive and good.

Furthermore, if you called someone you had something to say, whether it was just to catch up or to make plans. Either way, a conversation was necessary. No, we didn’t all have to be conversationalists in a way that would have made Jane Austen proud, but we did have to have some preconceived idea of what we were calling about (maybe). Besides this, because we were calling a phone shared by a household, calling too often would have been considered intrusive, especially before the days of call waiting. But even with call waiting, calling our friends necessitated an empathetic awareness of daily schedule; not calling during dinner, not calling too early/late, etc. We do not have these personal boundaries with our electronic communications. I’ll go ahead and lump cell phones into this lack of boundaries. How many people do you see in restaurants constantly looking at their phones? A few weeks ago we went out for Thai food and were seated next to a table of students, all silently bubbled in the world of their individual iPhones. I’m pretty sure they didn’t interact with each other at all. I don’t know how many people extend this habit to their in home dining, but this presupposes some type of communal family dinner activity occurs for most people.

The other issue with communication like Skype is that it usually happens while the kids are doing other things. We’ve been fighting the Minecraft battle for some time now, well, not fighting as in we’re all in there hanging out with Steve, but fighting as in trying to prevent the kids from losing themselves in Minecraft for entire days at a time. I mention this because this is when the bulk of said electronic communication happens, while playing games. Sure, they are mostly conversing over a shared game, and my husband has argued that this in and of itself is a new form of social interaction. At least they’re interacting with their friends, if only virtually? I suppose there is *some* value in this electronic play, but I have also overheard friends being asked to leave our house so that virtual play can resume from afar.

I’m by no means trying to vilify my stepsons, I am simply trying to observe the ways in which they are forming their own understanding of communication. It’s frightening to imagine on of my stepsons writing a blog post in 20 years (will there still be blogs?) and lamenting about the days when they had to click on someone’s name to talk to them. Hell, computers might be outdated by then. Kids will be stumbling around with their Google Goggles and us old farts will be bitching about the days when we had to remember things for ourselves. “When I was a kid we had to remember how to walk home from school using only our brains.”

Oh dear god. Please excuse me while I calm myself by snuggling with books, like actual books with pages I have to turn one by one.

Photo credit: Shamey Jo

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  1. focus July 18, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    Great post. I just had a conversation with my children about “the good old days” and the fact that caller ID, call waiting, and answering machines were not around when I was their age. I only had to remember 5 numbers–there were only two possibilities 758-xxxx or 756-xxxx so you only had to dial 5 digits to phone a friend. I have at least a decade more on age than you though, so that explains the added digits.
    My “status updates” from vacation were known as postcards or a near-extinct form of communication–letters.
    Getting real mail is still a vastly exciting thing for my kids.
    I wonder about the skill of communication–both written and verbal–in today’s world. Spelling,capitalization, grammar, and syntax all take a back seat when emailing and texting. Nuances of facial expression and tone are completely lost. I have seen similar groups of teens, ostensibly spending time together, but basically only sharing physical space and a good wi-fi connection.
    Focusing attention–full attention, without the distraction or an iPod, iPad, iPhone–is a skill that appears challenging. Just as some of the older generation find it challenging to try to manage a digital device and a conversation at the same time, the younger set seem to find it challenging to manage a conversation without the distraction of the digital
    I showed my age the other day when I told my children that long car trips when I was a kid did not accommodate entertainment. I could converse or play word games with the grownups, look out the window and find something to look at or count, read a book or daydream/sleep. They were horrified at the callous disinterest of my parents at providing distractions.
    Lots to think about with this post. I think my kids are in for some reminiscences from my past. I’m sure they can’t wait–when did I get so old?!

  2. Sarah Stup July 19, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Actually, it’s funny that you mention the number of digits we had to memorize. I distinctly remember the day we had to start using the 3 digit area code in front of phone numbers. Our county was exploding with suburban sprawl and we suddenly needed more phone numbers. And yes – postcards! You make a great point about written communication as well, especially handwritten communication in which there is no spellcheck, or delete. I know Doug has posted here previously about the art of handwriting. I also remember those long car rides. We were stuck with books, license plate games, music too. Although, my dad’s distraction was simply to make us leave at 4AM for all family beach vacations. He claimed he wanted to make the most of the day, but really I think he probably just wanted comatose kids in the car!

  3. Focus July 20, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    So after this post I end up seeing an actual payphone! I can’t remember when I last saw one. I took a picture for nostalgia and to show my kids–I’m not sure if they have ever seen one in real life–just in movies.

  4. Pingback: Put Away Childish Things

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