Why Our Urge to Answer the Phone Is Long Gone

"When the telephone rings". (Photo: Bell Telephone Company)

The copy for this 1949 Bell Telephone Company ad says it all.

Pop hopes its a call from Brown and Smith, saying that business deal is OK.
Mom's expecting a call from her mother.
Sis will go into a tailspin if it isn't Harry, who hasn't yet asked her for a Saturday night date.
Buddy hopes it's Joe, asking if he can come over.

This was truly the culture of the telephone — it was the only means of instant communication. Alexis Madrigal, tech writer for The Atlantic, describes how it became a key part of everyone's life.

In the moment when a phone rang, there was an imperative. One had to pick up the phone. This thinking permeated the culture from adults to children....Not picking up the phone would be like someone knocking at your door and you standing behind it not answering. It was, at the very least, rude, and quite possibly sneaky or creepy or something. Besides, as the phone rang, there were always so many questions, so many things to sort out. Who was it? What did they want? Was it for ... me?

But it all only worked when there was the assumption that if somebody was there, the phone would get picked up. "That was just how phones worked. The expectation of pickup was what made phones a synchronous medium."

Alexander Graham Bell birthplace
Seen in Scotland last month. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

It took a lot of work and marketing to get us to that stage; phones first had to become almost universal, which took some time. The phone companies really had to create the culture. Madrigal describes how at the beginning, people didn't even know what to say when they answered the phone, as Madrigal continues:

Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to start conversations by saying, "Ahoy-hoy!" AT&T; tried to prevent people from saying "hello," arguing in Telephone Engineer magazine that it was rude.

But eventually, the phone was everywhere, and our new cultural habits were born.

From birth to death

So much has changed since the introduction of the answering machine, the fax, the computer with email, the Blackberry and then the iPhone. It has changed the culture; Madrigal notes that we also have our Twitter, Facebook and Slack. "So many little dings have begun to make the rings obsolete."

There are a couple of other issues that have killed the phone. Perhaps the biggest is the unwanted calls that never used to happen. As I noted in an earlier post, the only time the phone rings now is for tax collection scams, robocalls, duct cleaners (because we have radiators) and Windows computer repairs (we have Macs and Chromebooks). Just yesterday when my wife went out for one hour, the phone rang four times — three were dead air (probably a robot checking to see if the line was live) and one was a recording.

old phone ad asking what it will be like
what will the phone be like?. (Photo: Bell Telephone Company)

Another reason may well be that they've gotten harder and less satisfying to use; numbers were easier to remember when they were four digits and then exchanges, like Elizabeth Taylor's famous BUtterfield 8 telephone answering service and my grandmother's EMpire 3. Then they went to all-numbers in the 60s and to 10 digits, cities got multiple area codes and numbers became harder to remember. In a wonderful article written in 1992 for The Sciences — a magazine now long gone — Brian Hayes foresaw all of this:

Telephone numbers may eventually become obscure internal codes that the general public has no need to know. Already many telephones come with speed-dialing buttons so that you record frequently called numbers (and thereafter forget them)... Such strategies for insulating the customer from the number itself will become more prevalent as numbers grow longer and harder to remember. I can imagine a kind of user interface that might ultimately evolve. In a couple of decades, perhaps, the telephone will have no dial at all. You will simply pick up the receiver and say, "Jenny, get me Mrs. Wilson, please. Thank you, dear."

But really, it's all about the alternatives, about the fact that we're no longer disconnected and waiting for that call from Harry or Joe or Mom. We got the text already. There is no expectation of a pickup anymore, and no waiting for the phone to ring. In fact, it has gone completely the other way; if I want to talk to someone, I send an email or text first asking permission. Phone culture as we knew it is completely dead.

Madrigal doesn't miss it. "I attach no special value to it. There’s no need to return to the pure state of 1980s telephonic culture." I don't either; there are a lot fewer surprises. It's a different world.