Friday 30 September 2016

Forget apps, we need to reclaim the art of conversation

Published 09/10/2015 | 02:30

Worryingly phone calls are fast becoming relics of a bygone era, replaced by texting, chat apps, emails, Facebook and iMessages
Worryingly phone calls are fast becoming relics of a bygone era, replaced by texting, chat apps, emails, Facebook and iMessages

Do you remember phone calls? You know that old-fashioned custom where you put a black thing up to your ear and spoke to someone in real time?

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We can all recall hours and hours spent on the blower (it used to be the "landline" and in recent years more likely a "mobile") gossiping and chatting with that friend you only said goodbye to in the classroom a few hours before. Or whispering sweet nothings down the line with your boyfriend or girlfriend as your parents roared at you to hang up as the phone bill would be huge, or your mobile credit wasted - and anyway you had homework to do.

And as you got older, the phone was vital in your work, no matter what business or sector you were in. You cultivated business, contacts and relationships over the phone. If the lines went down, business came to a full stop.

Fast forward to 2015 and worryingly phone calls are fast becoming relics of a bygone era, replaced by texting, chat apps, emails, Facebook, iMessages, etc.

As the mother of two young adult children who have moved away from home, I empathised this week with the woman from Pennsylvania who circulated a hilarious video for her son in an effort to get him to call her while away at college. It went viral with millions of hits.

Ann Pinto McCarney hadn't heard from 18-year-old Liam since he left for school a month earlier. She knew he was adjusting well, thanks to several text messages, but he hadn't bothered to call her once since starting classes.

So in an effort to spark him into action the feisty mother recorded a video, laying it on thick, reminding him of all the things she did for him while raising him for 18 years.

"Do you remember me?" the desperate mother asks in the video. "'I'm your mommy! I gave birth to you. Actually, I didn't quite give birth - I had to have a C-section to get you out. I got a big scar and it hurt like hell! But that's okay.

"Remember the first two years of your life, there was this woman and you were always on her hip, you, like, never wanted to get put down?" she asks.

"I'm that woman! I'm the person that always had you on her hip!"

He got the message and called her within 24 hours of the video going live.

In recent years my 80-year-old mother - after initial suspicion and resistance, I stress - became a fan of her mobile phone. She even learned to text. Where at one time she would have called us all to remind us of a birthday or a family event, during which you would have the chat, she would send a text to us all. "Reminder - Jim's Birthday" etc.

So devoted was she to the mobile she recently decided she didn't need her landline and had it cut off.

However, she is reviewing everything after losing her mobile phone (and all the contacts in it) and being left for two weeks with no telecommunication while waiting for a new landline to be installed. Her nine children and multiple grandchildren were left distraught.

As a journalist for many years the phone was vital, a lifeline. Contacts were nurtured and relationships developed over hours of cajoling and telephone sweet-talking with "deep throats".

You could build up trust over phone calls.

In fact, so important were phones in our trade that in the past campaigning journalists had theirs bugged. Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold were at the centre of the infamous phone-tapping scandal in Ireland in the early 1980's. There have been newspaper mobile phone-hacking scandals in the UK.

Recently I texted a government minister to see could we talk about a feature I was doing. I outlined broadly what I was looking for.

To my surprise, all my questions were answered in full in a return text - the minister had no time to talk.

But not having that direct contact meant I lost the opportunity to have a chat, build up a bit of trust and lob in another question that might have yielded a good story.

When my two kids lived at home, it used to drive me crazy when I would get a text from one or other barricaded in their bedrooms upstairs asking if dinner was ready.

When it comes to customer service nowadays, forget the phone call. It is all automated replies, where you are left hanging on for hours to get an answer to a query. It turns you off doing business with that company.

Technology is brilliant and has made our lives so much easier, but it also has a lot to answer for.

We have gotten used to being connected all the time - but to the exclusion of direct and spontaneous conversation in which we are fully present.

I keep in touch my two kids daily on WhatsApp. One is in New York and the other in Dublin. But I miss the direct phone call.

My daughter is keen to FaceTime and Skype but I hate doing the phone video thing. It's not the same. For a start I don't like having to "put on my face" just to have a casual phone conversation ("why do you look so wrecked, Mum?) And when I see her occasionally on the Skype screen, clearly having had a late night, I feel there are some things a mother needn't know.

So let's reclaim the phone chat. Make a point of phoning - not texting, emailing or WhatsApping - at least one friend or family member today.

Irish Independent

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