There’s a joke that’s been going around the internet for a while, concerning phones and how nobody likes to answer them anymore. Or perhaps not a joke so much as an observation, but then there’s always humour to be found in the frank depiction of a trait or habit that we haven’t previously recognised in ourselves. And this one is just so spot-on, at least for me:
Does anyone else do this? Stare at the phone screen in abject horror when it suddenly starts ringing? The caller ID flashes up and my palms start sweating, my heart beats faster – I’ve developed what could possibly be classified as a mild phobia to answering phone calls! Phonecallophobia! And I’ve been trying to work out what it is about people ringing that triggers this reaction – I don’t get the same feeling if I receive a text message, or an email, or if a Whatsapp pings through. Why is it that answering phone calls strikes such fear into me when years ago – certainly in my childhood and up to my late teens – getting a phone call was one of the great joys in life?
I remember my Mum talking for hours and hours on the phone – she’d answer it in the little study underneath the stairs so that we wouldn’t interrupt her – the wire would be stretched taut all the way along the hall and underneath the door and we’d hear her chatting away to one sister or another, or to Granny. Phone calls were a brilliant thing – the sound of the phone ringing was filled with a sense of optimism and opportunity. Who could it be? What news might they bring?
But there was a difference with this old-school phone, wasn’t there? The “house phone”. Firstly, people usually rang up at mutually convenient times. At eight o’ clock in the evening, for example, when all dinners had been served and cleared away and kids were going to bed. Or on a Saturday afternoon, or a Sunday morning, or at moments when there would be likely little pockets of time to chatter away in a relaxed manner.
(If people didn’t ring at the socially acceptable times, then you knew something was up. If the house phone rang after ten, there was only one thing on everyone’s minds as your parents glanced meaningfully at one another: WHO’S DIED? If it was early in the morning (“who would be ringing at this time?”) then we would wait eagerly to see if a pipe had burst at school and there was a day off. Or if squirrels had eaten through the electricity wires at school, and there was a day off. Or any combination of fantasy scenarios that meant that – yes – there was a day off.)
The second thing that was different about the house phone, after the fact that people usually rang at the socially acceptable times, was that you had the option to simply ignore it and the caller would be none the wiser.
“Don’t answer it!” said my Dad, quite regularly, knowing that it would be Motormouth Mike or Great Uncle Bob with the verbal incontinence. Or, if one of us had already answered, he would stand there silently screaming “I’M NOT IN! TELL HIM I’M NOT IN!” whilst making rapid slicing movements across his neck.
And this was the thing – you could, if you so desired, pretend to be out. And that was you, if you’ll excuse the pun, off the hook. The problem with the mobile phone is that it is always on your person. And everyone knows that. If you don’t answer, then perhaps you’re in a meeting or at the doctor’s or what have you, but if someone calls two or three times over the course of the day and you don’t pick it up? Then you’re just being rude. Oh God, the stress of it – the stress of the caller ID persistently flashing up when all you want to do is continue your nap, or finish answering your emails, or eat your lunch in peace.
Mind you, at least you can silence the modern phone. With the telecommunications of yore you had to wait for the blasted thing to stop. And it would ring for ages! Whole minutes that felt like days. The entire house would be filled with the sound of it, and the little silences in between the rings were heavy with your own sense of uncomfortable guilt.
“Don’t touch it. It’ll stop soon.”
“How long are they going to keep going for? For Pete’s sake! We’re obviously not at home!”
On our modern phones, we just flick the little button and the problem is silenced. Although – and this is a mean trick – sometimes the person’s photograph comes up! It fills the whole screen on the iPhone, their eyes stare into your eyes as you purposefully avoid their call. You look straight into your own granny’s face – that person who gave you penny sweets as a child, who you take flowers to every Sunday, who bakes you a cake when you’re feeling low – and you cold-heartedly ignore their smiling request for communication.
“Answer me!” pleads granny, “answer me, my dear! I know you’re there, because you’re always on your iBerry when you visit, you never put the
bloody thing down!”
“No, granny,” you say (indirectly), “you can go away with your cakes and your penny sweets, I’m tweeting about #loveisland and the sooner you bog off and hang up the sooner I can get on with it.”
Oh, modern life. It’s the fact that we are expected to be constantly accessible that has made us like this. Or, I should say, has made most of us like this. Mr AMR loves a phone call, can’t abide a text. In fact, being the belligerent sadist that he is, he will make a point of calling someone up the moment they send him one.
“I know they’re there,” he says, “because they’ve literally just typed the text. They’ll have to answer.”
For me, that’s the equivalent of someone bursting through your bedroom door at 2am, playing the bugle and shining a flashlight into your face. “I know you said you were sleeping, but I thought I’d just pop in and say hello!”
Oh that’s another thing, he loves to just pop in on people in the daytime. No warning, no appointment, he just stops by and rings the doorbell. Who does that? In this century? I’m sure people must hide from him. “Yoohooo! Anyone at home?”
Anyway, what are your feelings on answering phone calls? Vote in my little survey below, if you would, or leave a comment. Obviously I’m not talking about all phone calls – I mean, I spend half my day answering calls, and I love a catchup with friends and family – it’s just a general fear of answering them. That you’re always obliged to be present and available, that you can never switch off. Emails and texts can be answered at your leisure, calls are pressing and immediate and – ugh. I’m coming out in hives. And don’t even get me started on withheld numbers…[socialpoll id=”2449255″]