Jewish World Review Nov. 28, 2007 / 18 Kislev 5768
Cell phones cut out secondary circle of kinship
By Michael Smerconish
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | I had an epiphany at the Thanksgiving table, somewhere between passing the stuffing and inhaling a drumstick.
Technology is killing our means of communication.
I know that sounds counterintuitive, and you're probably thinking I was hallucinating from too much tryptophan. But it's true. The stuff that is supposed to keep us in touch is making us more distant. In particular, I blame advances in cell phone technology.
What spurred my thought was the absence of two usual guests from our turkey table, "Aunt Laura" and "Uncle Don," my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, respectively. He's a retired NYPD lieutenant, a big guy who used to work security for Rudy Giuliani. Loves the Yanks, but is nevertheless fun to be around. He's godfather to one of our sons and tells good stories. One holiday, he regaled us with his late-night rescue of Frank Sinatra in a New York alley.
She's a character, too. Her name is Laura, but our kids call her "Aunt Kitty" for reasons that have always been a mystery to me. It might have something to do with her antique doll collection, but I'm not sure.
They're fun to be around, which is why I was sorry they couldn't join us this year, and these days, I hardly talk to either of them. All of my gadgets, which supposedly enhance our ability to communicate, have seen to that.
I'm BlackBerry-addicted. I have a PC and a laptop. I enjoy my iPod. Love my GPS.
But I don't use any of those to reach out to Laura and Don. We're congenial, but not that close. We don't call one another, although I know we should. Apart from semiannual visits, ours was the sort of relationship kept intact when I served as an intermediary for communication with my wife.
This goes back to the days when the only phone ringing was a house telephone _ usually in the kitchen _ and whoever was closest picked it up. After a few words, it would often get handed off to the call's intended recipient: "Phone!" You know how that works.
When the phone rings today, it's a BlackBerry or cell phone, and the only person who answers is the intended recipient. There is no secondary circle of communication. Gone is the communication with the person who is a relative on your spouse's side of the family. Today, when my sister-in-law wants to talk to my wife, she calls her directly, or sends her an e-mail.
I'm out of the loop.
In some situations, this is a plus. It can spare what I call "stupid talk," spare contact with acquaintances I find annoying. But mostly I think it's a bad thing.
The problem is bound to get worse. A U.S. Consumer Expenditure survey found that the percentage of households paying a cell phone bill but no landline bill increased from 0.4 percent in 2000 to almost 8 percent by the beginning of 2005. If someone asks me for my phone number these days, I never give out the house number. Instead, I offer a cell number, or better yet, an e-mail address.
But this has many drawbacks. Consider the case of your daughter's boyfriend. Or your son's girlfriend.
Remember how you used to get your first impression of him or her? Their phone manner.
"Hello, Mr. Smir-na-coff?"
You immediately knew if he was courteous. ("May I please speak with ... ?") You knew if he had personality. ("Did you hear the one about ... ?") You got a hunch as to whether he was appropriate. ("Oh, no, sir, I would never dream of ... ") And whether he was smart. ("I loved your column on ... ")
Now, you've never heard of him until he shows up at the front door.
It's the same with your kids' entire social circle. And your husband's boss. And your wife's book club. The only person who gets to know these people is the one who deals directly with them. The family telephone used to be the axle through which all the spokes in the family and social network were connected. No more.
Today, it's shocking when you call a cell number and someone else answers. You stumble all over yourself, forgetting how to make polite small talk. It's a lost art.
One-on-one used to be a form of basketball defense. Now it's the way we live our lives.
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