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    Ideas | Janelle Nanos

    Stop answering your phone


    Back during World War I, long before cars would become ubiquitous, a young soldier looking to hail a ride would hold out his thumb on the side of the road and hitch his way to his destination. Hitchhiking seemed so quaint back then: the unknown thrill of who might be behind the wheel, and the promise of an interesting conversation. When lots of people hitchhiked, it was fairly safe — the odds that any one hitchhiker, or any one driver, posed a threat was relatively small.

    By the 1970s and ’80s, though, the notion of hitchhiking had taken a darker turn, and had become more associated with psychopaths. Suspicions grew between would-be hitchhikers and their would-be drivers. Soon enough almost nobody hitchhiked at all. I vividly remember a screening of the 1986 slasher film “The Hitcher,” which left the distinct impression that I’d be an idiot to ever pick up a stranger.

    And today, I realize, I feel the same way about picking up a phone call from an unknown number. Just as the intimacy and immediacy of hitchhiking has been supplanted by fear and suspicion, the phone call, particularly the cold call, now sends a chill down the spine. Years ago, every ringing phone was a mystery, often in a good way. Today, a friend who wants to invite you for dinner will show up on caller ID, or just text instead; a long-lost childhood pal will look you up on Facebook, not the phone book. The ratio of good cold calls to bad cold calls has plunged. If enough people stop taking phone calls out of the blue, nobody but telemarketers will bother making them.


    Rules of human behavior aren’t just handed down by Emily Post or Miss Manners. They subtly evolve as technology and consumer behavior change. Once, hitchhiking was OK. Then it wasn’t. The rise of smartphones could bring forth a host of new etiquette rules. Such as: For heaven’s sake, stop answering your phone.

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    Don’t get me wrong. Americans still use their phones the old-fashioned way. We still spend about six minutes a day actually talking on our devices, which is about the same time, according to the American Time Use Survey, we spoke on the phone in 2003-04. And teenagers, God love them, are actually making more calls now to their closest friends than they were more than a decade ago, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey.

    But our phones are changing us: Social media use on smartphones has been tied to depression, stilted social habits, and, in one small South Korean study, a dulling of the neurotransmitters in the brains. Generation Z seems particularly susceptible: “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge wrote in The Atlantic this past summer. In the course of researching her book, “iGen,” Twenge found that smartphone use contributes to the fact that today’s middle and high school students are far less independent than previous generations, meaning they spend less time hanging out, dating, and even having sex.

    Given the profundity of these changes, is it any surprise that we approach the phone part of our smartphones in a similar state of flux? An unknown phone number is routinely the work of spammers looking to catch us in a moment of weakness and ensnare us in their ploys. And our bosses or colleagues can easily track us down on vacation or at home. Must “always on” literally mean “always”?

    “I was on a company advisory board call, and someone forgot to mute their phone and the toilet flushed,” says Lou Shipley, a MIT lecturer with a litany of tech and telecommunications startups to his name. “No one took ownership of it and wanted to admit it was them.” But nobody should have been surprised. A 2012 survey said that 75 percent of Americans bring their phones in the loo, with 63 percent of those respondents saying they’ve answered a call while on the throne.


    “What’s socially accepted to do on a phone call is totally different when people are trying to multitask all the time,” Shipley says.

    Because people face competing pressures, our smartphones are designed with call-rejection functions: See an unwanted number? Push a button and send a pre-written text to the caller. Meanwhile, spam filters continue to be among the latest and most desired features introduced by phone carriers.

    Put simply, we’re thinking about access in a new way: Immediate conversations with friends and relatives can be easily accomplished via text, which can also serve as a way of checking in on someone’s availability before placing a call. (Note to my relatives: A quick text before FaceTime would also be much appreciated.) E-mails are a thoughtful and more formal way of introducing an idea to a client or colleague. When we do arrange to get on the phone, it’s typically now done in advance, and accompanied by a calendar invite.

    Just think: The whole notion of “let’s schedule a call” would have been impossible a generation ago. How, other than by simply calling someone, would you have arranged a conversation?

    When early telephone networks were first introduced to America, they were done not with the public, but rather with businesses in mind. The phone companies saw them as practical devices for business owners who wanted to be in touch with the factory floor, or pharmacists who needed to confer with doctors, said Claude Fischer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940.”


    Eventually telephone providers begrudgingly accepted that phones could be installed in the home, but insisted they be used for purely perfunctory purposes, Fischer said. “The lady in the household could order groceries, she could call the doctor or call the police if she’s frightened at night,” he said. It was simply pitched that “she could do the job of household manager much more efficiently if she had the phone.”

    Phone companies grew of the telegraph era, when brevity was king. They would have adored emoji.

    But a problem quickly arose. Much to their chagrin, the phone companies soon learned that their residential customers were using the phones for “idle chit chat,” said Fischer. “For a couple of decades the phone company resisted and tried to suppress the use of the phones for those purposes. That was a real tension between various companies and their residential customers, particularly women.”

    It wasn’t just that they might be tying up the lines. The tension was also rooted in the history of the phone companies — which were born out of the telegraph era, when brevity was king. (For this very reason, they would have adored emoji.)

    Those sentiments changed in the 1920s. After the largest phone provider, AT&T, got new management and marketing teams, it began selling personal phone use as a way to send holiday greetings and arrange a person’s social affairs. That, coupled with the arrival of party lines, meant that much of the marketing also attempted to educate the public about proper phone use. Phone companies despised the informal use of “hello,” thinking it was a vulgar way to answer calls. There was constant disagreement over whether switchboard operators, most of whom were women, should be exposed to profanity when it was used on the line.

    All of this newfound angst riled up the public. “The human voice carries entirely too far as it is,” Mark Twain famously said, dismissing Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. “If Bell had invented a muffler or gag, he would have done a real service,” Twain also complained. “Here we have been hollering ‘shut up’ to our neighbors for centuries, and now you fellows come along and seek to complicate matters.”

    For years, privacy concerns persisted about people calling into households uninvited. “That was a sensitive issue,” Fischer said. The landline posed other prickly new dilemmas: Who should be the one to initiate or terminate the phone call? Should you drop everything to rush to a ringing phone? Was it more rude to ignore the person on the other end of the line, or to step away from your houseguests to answer it?

    “In my grandmother’s day you answered the phone because it was ringing. It was important for you to get the call,” says Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., and the co-host of the podcast “Awesome Etiquette.” “But today there is the expectation that you’re probably busy doing something else and you can’t take the time.”

    Voice mail was once considered a saving grace to that end — a way to focus on entertaining your guests without missing valuable information from the caller, but Post observes that more people reject voice mails outright, discouraging people from leaving them by saying “I never check my voice mail” in their outgoing messages. But that puts an extra onus on the caller to make more attempts to reach you, she said, and “that’s not polite in this day and age.” Similar rules apply when scheduling calls, as I learned when coordinating an interview with her. Post has a policy: If you want to reach her, you should be ready to do the dialing.

    Also frustrating to Post is when someone texts her, but then refuses to pick up the phone when she immediately places a call in response. “You know that there’s no way that the phone can be out of their hand, and yet they don’t answer,” she says. “I don’t know how to fix that.”

    And while we may be approaching a post-phone age, Post is still bullish about placing spontaneous calls. “It is not rude to call up a friend and see how they’re doing,” she says.

    While the public wrangles with how to avoid answering the phone, there is one area in which calls are thriving. And perhaps not surprisingly, it’s among the user population that phones were originally intended to serve: businesses.

    Shipley, who teaches a course in technology sales at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, says the region’s fastest-growing tech firms are using innovative high-velocity dialing devices to target their sales calls.

    “People are using phones to try and measure call time, connect time, and call-back time,” he said. At Shipley’s current company, the open-source security firm Black Duck, phone reps use about 15 different software tools that focus with laser-like precision on potential clients, he said. It’s made it so it’s not unusual at all for operators to now sell $100,000 worth of software over the phone.

    “It really is different,” he says. “It used to be that in order to do a 100K software sale you needed to go see someone in person and shake their hand,” he says. “It’s so much cheaper to close a business deal without travelling if you can do a sizable transaction over the phone.”

    In the end, the sticking point may just be the name we use for these ever-present devices. Will we reach a day when we stop calling them phones? “It isn’t really a phone, it’s a supercomputer that sits in your hand,” says Shipley. “That’s where the analogy is not the right way to talk about it. A phone is this dumb device that’s tethered to a wall.”

    But that “dumb” simplicity has not been lost on us completely, says Fischer. In a recent as-yet-unpublished study looking at how people communicate with their social connections, he found that while teenagers and 20-somethings tend to make plans with their friends based on proximity, they still pick up the phone when they seek intimate interactions.

    Old habits seldom disappear entirely, and perhaps some future twist in technology will revive the traditional cold call. After all, even hitchhiking is back. In the smartphone era, thanks to Uber, millions of people are getting in cars with perfect strangers.

    Janelle Nanos can be reached at