Please Don’t Leave a Message

Perhaps you have had the same experience as I have had. You leave a message on someone’s landline phone, and a week or two later you bump into them and find out that they haven’t listened to their messages. I am guilty of this as well. Cell phones, texting and What’s App’ing have become so ubiquitous that the majority of calls on our landline are spam or solicitations. The incentive to retrieve messages is reduced. Of course, this entire thought process assumes that whoever you are calling still has a landline or, if they are below a certain age, that they even know what one is.

Recently, some of our grandchildren burst into uncontrollable laughter when their father used the word ‘telephone.’ It seems that word, in contrast to just ‘phone’ conjures up pictures from an antiquated past. Talking on a phone that is tethered to the wall? Waiting until Sunday or past 11 on a weekday night to catch 3 minutes of conversation at a less expensive rate? Don’t even mention a party line. Anything that happened more than a decade ago is passé.

Certainly, with communication so easy and cheap today, one could think that relationships should be stronger. Once again, Pandora’s box of unintended consequences strikes.

I was blessed with a close relationship with my father-in-law. This did not come about casually. He was both an esteemed rabbi and a proper English gentleman. Although always courteous and welcoming to his students as well as to strangers, formal rather than fuzzy would have been the adjective with which he was associated. While my mother-in-law was cut from the same cloth, as two women it was easier for us to bond. We could always discuss a new recipe or kitchen item, or anything that would fall under the category of family chit-chat.

While I did phone my father-in-law with questions that arose while preparing a Bible class, I would not have thought of calling him to discuss daily trivialities. My father-in-law, however, forced our relationship to develop by doing exactly that. The tool for being able to do so was our and their household telephones. When, as often happened, I called to speak to my mother-in-law, or my father-in-law called to speak to my husband, because the phone numbers we used were for the household rather than for an individual, the “wrong” person often answered. At that point, my father-in-law, rather than directly calling my mother-in-law to the phone or asking me to call my husband, always initiated and carried on a relatively lengthy conversation with me before transferring the call to the intended party. He made sure that I knew that I was an important person in his life.

When everyone has their own personal phone attached to them as closely as fake eyelashes, that larger relationship-building does not happen. But there is another unintended consequence to consider. Last week, I texted my daughter-in-law with a comment I hoped she would pass on to her husband. At the same time, my husband sang our daughter-in-law’s praises to our son and assumed that he would pass the compliment on. Neither happened. When we were puzzled by this lack of sharing, one of our daughters pointed out that the amount of communication we are all receiving is overwhelming. In the not-so-distant past, we did not call someone twenty times a day, yet it is easy to relentlessly flex our thumbs and LOL, OMG, with nary a pause. Texts, videos, and worthwhile and time-wasting messages all get shared. By the time the day ends, the dozens of messages that scrolled past us have beaten us down into a stupor. The valuable ones among them get shunted aside along with the others. Once new messages have pushed the less recent up past the top of the page, they are for all intents, gone. None have penetrated deeply into our minds and hearts the way that a written letter (even a written email) or a rare phone call does.

I love easily being in touch with loved ones around the globe. It is incredibly convenient to dash off a quick message to find out if one of our local daughters is at the supermarket or to read that my husband is running late. Sharing a piece of important news with lots of people at once isn’t only convenient, but it keeps anyone from feeling bad that they heard news later than someone else. And yet… Increased communication ability can walk hand-in-hand with decreased relationship building. Only determined choices and active decisions will keep the valuable effects of long chats, hand-written letters, and focused interactions from being shelved along with iceboxes, whale oil lamps, and VHS tapes.

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