Communication Advances, Respect Degradation

I’m surprised at how many people responded to the previous post, “Valentine’s Day Flashback: The Lost Art of Letter Writing.” Thank you for the comments. (“Keep those cards and letters coming.”)

While I’m on the whole communication soapbox, I thought I’d share a couple other observations about how our world has changed. And how we’ve changed, too.

Growing up, in our home, we had a television that received four stations — each of the three networks and their affiliates, and (bonus) the Canadian station 20 miles away in Windsor, Ontario.

We also had a telephone. One telephone. It was in the kitchen. And it was connected to the wall. We rented it from the phone company. It was black (other colors were more expensive) and the kind you dialed. After each number, you had to wait for the dial to return to its normal position. No touch pad, no voice activation. For long distance calls, homing pigeons were slightly faster.

The receiver was tethered to the base via a 12-inch curly cord. If you yanked it, you could use the phone in the dining room and close the sliding door to the kitchen — affording some measure of “privacy” in the 1,100 square foot ranch occupied by eight people.

We shared a party line with neighbors a street over. A “party line,” for you youngsters, is a shared phone line. So, instead of the five or eight or 15 private phone lines you have in your home now, you shared one line with people you hardly knew. You could pick up the receiver and listen in on your neighbors’ conversations, if you were really quiet. Which we never were. And so you’d get an ear full from Gladys Kravitz — who was probably talking about you to begin with.

Back then, the phone was a magical device. When it rang, we’d run to answer it. Didn’t matter who was calling. It’s RINGING, FOR GOD’S SAKE! This could be really important! Sometimes, in our zeal to find out who this incredible person was on the line, we’d resort to tackling a sibling who might get to the phone first, dragging him/her by the legs across the kitchen floor away from the phone, and then jumping over said prone sibling — not really worrying whether you’d land on his/her head or vital organ.

Too often, in the melee, the phone would be lifted from its receiver and end up back again — ending the call and extinguishing our excitement over whatever “news” may have been.

Flash forward forty-some years

When the phone rings in our house now (the house phone, that is — not any of the four cell phones), no one wants to answer it. “Is it a matter of inconvenience,” you ask? No — there are three cordless phones positioned for the greatest access. And, no matter that you can actually see who’s calling. (“Ah…the aunt I haven’t seen in 13 years…” “Hey — it’s Publisher’s Clearinghouse, letting us know we’ve won 50 million dollars…”) No one goes near that kryptonite device.

My teenage daughters are the worst: “I don’t like talking on the phone.” This from the same pair who take their cell phones to bed, and text surreptitiously during “family night” movies. But, in their defense, sometimes when the house phone is ringing, they grab it off its base (without answering it, mind you) and throw (yes, throw) it to the first parent within striking distance.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, doesn’t mind answering the phone. But she’s 93-years-old. It’s the highlight of the week when she takes a message and — as if it knows how to screw us — the Caller ID history provides nary a clue.

Her: “Someone called while you were out.”
Me: “Who?”
Her: “I think he said his name was ‘Brian.'”
Me: “Brian…Brian, who?”
Her: “I don’t know. I thought it was my son, Brian. So I asked him what the hell he wanted…”

Back in the day, my brothers and I delivered The Detroit News door-to-door. Unlike its competitor, the Detroit Free Press, which came out in the early morning, the News was delivered in the afternoons. This, along with their editorial perspectives (conservative and liberal, respectively), were their competitive advantages. If something important happened during the previous evening, the Free Press had the jump. If it occurred during the morning, the News got the scoop.

People sat on their porches waiting for the afternoon paper. And, if one of my customers felt like chatting, causing a momentarily delay in the other deliveries, other customers would yell at me. I guess if you’re sitting on your porch, you probably have little else to do than to watch me deliver newspapers.

News, information, communication: It meant something back when you had to wait — or wrestle a loved one to the ground — for it.

Speaking of those neighbors

Our neighbors were on their porches all the time except during inclement weather. They knew everything happening in the neighborhood, so you never even considered getting into trouble. Once, when delivering my papers, I had to use my sister’s bike — as mine had a flat tire.

Mr. Jansen: “Where’s your bike?”

Mr. Jansen was old. He was born in a time without instantaneous communication. He was probably grateful for living long enough to have a newspaper delivered to him each day. But sitting on death’s porch did little to diminish his keen observational skills. Something about the pink PoS I was riding, with the low bar in front of the seat, the handle-grip streamers and front basket suggested this was not my de rigueur form of transportation.

“Mr. Jansen was old. But sitting on death’s porch did little to diminish his keen observational skills.”

After I explained my plight, he asked how much a new tire cost — and began reaching in his wallet to pay for it. (Perhaps he had seen our telephone and felt sorry for us.) I declined the donation graciously. My parents never let us take money from neighbors — especially the older ones. Even if we shoveled their sidewalks and driveways or raked their lawns. Even if we had to ride sissy bikes.

I think this was quid pro quo: My parents provided free labor to the neighbors, and they reported all deviant behavior. (This was something that actually saved the lives of two of my brothers. Seriously. But that’s another story.)

Which brings me to the respect we had for those neighbors, for each other, and the lack thereof these days. Our ability to communicate is inversely related to our respect for each other.

Why don’t some people respond to e-mails or phone calls? Even long-time friends and/or colleagues?

I’m talking about folks with whom you have a relationship — and you’ve left them voice messages, e-mails, and texts. Kind messages — just asking for an update or an explanation.

Or, the “friend” who posts self-glorifying blurbs on Facebook. And, despite all the comments you leave on his/her page, never posts anything on your page. Someone unclear on the whole concept of “communication,” yes?

You never call anymore.

To me, these are unacceptable — as unacceptable as not answering the home phone when someone thinks of you enough to call.

Perhaps it’s like anything else: The easier we have it, the more abundant it is, the less we value it. Gone are the days when we had to walk miles to the general store to pick up mail, send a telegram, or make a phone call. Voice, text and even video are instantaneous — and now, often free.

Some people can’t conceive of newspapers, general stores, libraries, and neighbors sitting on porches being our only conduits to world and local events.

I can. And I think I miss them.