Telephone Calls, Ma Bell and Big Mergers

Hey, didn’t we just break up Ma Bell? Nah, that was in the 1980s when government regulators figured it was better to have a bevy of Baby Bells rather than one mega-conglomerate controlling the phone lines.  Well, Ma Bell is back.

AT&T announced earlier this week that pending regulatory review and approval it planned to buy T-Mobile for $39 billion in cash and stock. You can be sure that if this deal moves forward employees of both companies and consumers will get screwed — but that’s not the point of my thoughtful analysis today.

Instead, does anyone really care about phones these days — mobile or ones still tethered to a landline? And no. I don’t mean for texting, or to scan the Internet, or to find out via Twitter or Facebook that some asshat has just checked in at a Starbucks somewhere in the USA.

I mean to use a phone to actually talk to someone else — one speaking while the other listens and back and forth and so on.

My landline phone these days is mute, save the dinner-hour calls from telemarketers, Democratic Party fundraisers and other miscreants. (Note to self: The inventor of caller ID should receive some sort of national humanitarian award.) And my BlackBerry beyond business-related conference calls and calling my Mother once a week would be worthless if it weren’t for the hundred or so email and text messages I receive most days.

Am I alone in all this? A citizen-clad citizen journalist paying two monthly phone bills — one from AT&T — while receiving no phone calls. Hardly.

Here’s from Pamela Paul, opining in the New York Times, “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You.”

NOBODY calls me anymore — and that’s just fine. With the exception of immediate family members, who mostly phone to discuss medical symptoms and arrange child care, and the Roundabout Theater fund-raising team, which takes a diabolical delight in phoning me every few weeks at precisely the moment I am tucking in my children, people just don’t call.

It’s at the point where when the phone does ring — and it’s not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter — my first thought is: “What’s happened? What’s wrong?” My second thought is: “Isn’t it weird to just call like that? Out of the blue? With no e-mailed warning?”

I don’t think it’s just me. Sure, teenagers gave up the phone call eons ago. But I’m a long way away from my teenage years, back when the key rite of passage was getting a phone in your bedroom or (cue Molly Ringwald gasp) a line of your own.

In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

“I literally never use the phone,” Jonathan Adler, the interior designer, told me. (Alas, by phone, but it had to be.) “Sometimes I call my mother on the way to work because she’ll be happy to chitty chat. But I just can’t think of anyone else who’d want to talk to me.” Then again, he doesn’t want to be called, either. “I’ve learned not to press ‘ignore’ on my cellphone because then people know that you’re there.”

“I remember when I was growing up, the rule was, ‘Don’t call anyone after 10 p.m.,’ ” Mr. Adler said. “Now the rule is, ‘Don’t call anyone. Ever.’ ”

Ah, why so?

Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward. “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” Judith Martin, a k a Miss Manners, said by way of opening our phone conversation. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.”

Though the beast has been somewhat tamed by voice mail and caller ID, the phone caller still insists, Ms. Martin explained, “that we should drop whatever we’re doing and listen to me.”

Even at work, where people once managed to look busy by wearing a headset or constantly parrying calls back and forth via a harried assistant, the offices are silent. The reasons are multifold. Nobody has assistants anymore to handle telecommunications. And in today’s nearly door-free workplaces, unless everyone is on the phone, calls are disruptive and, in a tight warren of cubicles, distressingly public. Does anyone want to hear me detail to the dentist the havoc six-year molars have wreaked on my daughter?

“When I walk around the office, nobody is on the phone,” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher at HarperCollins. The nature of the rare business call has also changed. “Phone calls used to be everything: serious, light, heavy, funny,” Mr. Burnham said. “But now they tend to be things that are very focused. And almost everyone e-mails first and asks, ‘Is it O.K. if I call?’ ”

Even in fields where workers of various stripes (publicists, agents, salespeople) traditionally conducted much of their business by phone, hoping to catch a coveted decision-maker off-guard or in a down moment, the phone stays on the hook. When Matthew Ballast, an executive director for publicity at Grand Central Publishing, began working in book publicity 12 years ago, he would go down his list of people to cold call, then follow up two or three times, also by phone. “I remember five years ago, I had a pad with a list of calls I had to return,” he said. Now, he talks by phone two or three times a day.

“You pretty much call people on the phone when you don’t understand their e-mail,” he said.

OK. Time to check my emails and text messages.

Please, don’t call.


2 responses to “Telephone Calls, Ma Bell and Big Mergers

  1. This editorial really cracked me up this morning too. And it’s so true. I think when I was fifteen or so the BIGGEST thing in my life was that I got my OWN telephone line!! Now I don’t even think that I’ve had a landline in 5 years. I adore my iPhone for several reasons: free international long distance calls on Viber, Angry birds, and GPS (among all of the other email and Internet apps I use). But I never talk to anyone. And when someone calls me, I immediately am suspicious! So Ma Bell may be back, but the age of the telephone as even my generation once knew it is over!

    • I agree. And I believe the only thing the phone is really good for these days is to interrupt my afternoon nap.

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