The biggest change: Times Past

Irene Waters’ “Times Past” prompt challenge topic for this month is: The biggest change:

The biggest change I notice in my lifetime…so far…is the way we communicate.

When I was growing up (in a United States suburb) we talked to each other more directly. All the time. In our homes. In school. On the playground. On the street. Whether we liked it or not, we needed to listen. If we didn’t talk, either in person or on the phone, we wrote notes or letters – by hand.

As a very young baby boomer, I grew up in a household with a landline and several telephones. One phone was attached to a kitchen wall with a long coiled handset cord; which allowed my mother to talk to her friend down the street, make a casserole, wipe counters and watch out the back window to check on her wild children chasing each other in the yard. There was another phone in my parents’ bedroom, plugged into the wall with a cord. We had one phone number – which only changed when we moved. It was our main means of immediate communication. At first we had rotary dial phones. Each numeral of the phone number had to be dialed – actually dialed – and it probably took 10 seconds to place a call depending on the number. Which gave you time to change your mind if need be – or think more about what you were going to say. When we changed to “touch tone” phones, it was a big deal. As I got older, “my own phone” always topped my birthday list. As the family grew larger, so did the number of phones.  We could all pick up the various phone extensions and share conversations with grandparents and friends.  Now, with cell phones, that’s not possible – unless you crowd around a phone while on speaker. Less private and less intimate.

If I wanted to tell a girlfriend my latest news, I would call her. She would call me. We talked for a few minutes or an hour. No answering machines – if I wasn’t home, I missed the call. Making a long distance “toll call” cost extra. If a local friend moved – even just a few towns away – we switched to writing letters. And patiently waited for the post office to send our letters back and forth.

Penmanship was an actual subject in grammar school – we all learned “cursive” writing soon after learning to print. I had to practice the fine art of slanting each letter the right way and crossing the “t” just so. Over and over. We were graded on penmanship in quarterly report cards; which was always my downfall. I think I was in too much of a hurry. My penmanship always “needed improvement.” The only behavior issue…”refrain from excessive talking”….

When I spent summers at overnight camps (either as a camper or a counselor), dozens of letters went back and forth with friends and family.  I also saved dimes, nickels and quarters (or called “collect”) to use a pay phone to call home every so often. The sound of a human voice always made a difference. I could pick up on the nuances of tone and emotion in my mother’s voice, for example, which added an extra dimension…one way or the other…to the conversation.  I could sense when a friend said she was “okay,” that maybe she really wasn’t — something I could only tell by hearing her voice. “What?” I might ask. “What is really going on?” When I lived in a dormitory at college, my roommate and I shared one phone. Also attached to the wall.

Now it’s texting or quick calls while en-route somewhere else on static filled speakerphone or bluetooth connections. Conversation is condensed, nonexistent or limited to short bursts. Now, a friend or family member calling to ask “how are you?” is often replaced by a texted “how R U?” Or the cell rings and I hear a breathless “I’m about to get on the bus/subway/train. I only have a few minutes…what’s up?” Landlines allowed us time.

One might argue that texting increases communication, but its intrusiveness & lack of dimension may put up an unintended wall. Communicating when I was growing up was more straightforward. I didn’t have to interpret what an emoji meant or if my friend was avoiding me by not texting back. Childhood friendships can be tricky enough to navigate without worrying about….”what did she mean by that text?” or “what’s with all the capital letters?”

And bullying by text is truly a more cowardly act than when it was face to face. When I was a kid, the mean girls passed notes or used words; but it stopped at the end of the schoolyard. Texting meanness and tapping “send” is so much easier and so much more toxic.