The Mechanisms of Intimacy; or “You Don’t Call Me Enough!”

In the new technological age, genuine connections are harder to find, harder to initiate, and harder to maintain and sustain. People are being raised to spend inordinate amounts of time communicating through machinces. None more so than the telephone.

The over-reliance on the telephone, means that understanding how to read a person’s expressions, understanding body language, etc gets lost. People become socialized to speak in flat generalities and trade anecdotes because there can only be so much communicated over the phone when you can’t see how the person is communicating what they are saying. For instance, someone could say “I hate him” and on the phone it can sound sincere, but in person the person might make a facial gesture that lets you know more about the situation.

Particularly, for my generation that was raised on telephones and computers and whatnot, real communication is very difficult. People tend to communicate in socialized familiarities and innuendos that do far more to tell you what media and social circles a person is privy to, but tells you nothing about who they are as an individual. This is true because people often say to me, “He’s so different from when we talked on the phone” or “He is so quiet on the phone.” People mistake phone conversation for the kind of meaningful dialogue that one gets from engaging in face-to-face interactions. And then when they realize this is not the case, they oftentimes think the person was dishonest, not forthcoming, or a liar. More often than not, what that really means is that people just feel less inclined to connect when they know that the other person can’t really tell that it’s not genuine interaction.

We feign complex and meaningful conversations on the phone! And I think we actually know it. I really do!

I’ve been in DC for almost nine months and I have run into so many people who over-rely on phone and internet for communication. And I am not a phone person. I never have been. And so it became very difficult to meet and get to know people because they demanded to be spoken to, by phone, every single day. While I understand that meeting strangers is a risk, for me after a certain point, I needed to interact with a human being.

The people that I talk to on the phone for extended periods of time are people far away who I’ve built a personal connection with prior to engaging in extended phone conversations as the primary means of communicating. My best friend lives in Delaware and we talk one or two times a week, on average. We both live very hectic, different lives and appreciate when the other has time to talk on the phone. We do not demand extraordinary amounts of time on the phone to validate the relationship. We also never assume that what time we do spend on the phone is an adequate substitute for the few times we get to see each other in person.

So many people feel that if they don’t talk to you every day then something is wrong. So many people immediately assume that if a person doesn’t call every day or every other day then that person is doing something wrong, being dishonest. This is absurd. Why don’t we consider the other alternatives, that the person could be tired from a long day, working, or shit, on the phone with someone else? Why assume the worst just because there is no phone communication?

If you require constant communication and you demand that a person call you everyday, a more useful request would be to ask for that person to spend actual time together, face-to-face. If you want them to go out of their way, why not have them go out of their way to spend face-to-face time together?

The answer to this question is our society loves the distance that is inherent in telephone communication. You can talk about everything under the sun and be really emotional about it and feel connected, while knowing that there is a level of communication that you will never get to over the phone. We spend hours listening to ourselves speak on the phone. Are we in love with the sounds of our own voice? Or is it that we are in love with the emotion that we put out even if it’s not received and then reciprocated. Telephones are remarkably one-sided. You can pour out your heart and all the person on the other end can really do is verbally reassure you. The tangible is missing. And I think that is ironically, what we love about it. We can do all the work of connecting without having to deal with it tangibly.

Telephones give a false sense of intimacy. You can wax nostalgic or poetic for hours and bore the tears off of the person on the other line and you’d never really know. Frequently, I find myself saying “mmmhmmm” or “right” just so the other person thinks I’m listening. One might say that this could just be me. But I’ve found this to be the case when I’m doing the talking as well. Telephones are all about hearing your self talk, because there is no one really there in the room with you when you do. A disembodied voice will never be an adequate substitute for a flesh-and-blood person.

We have become a society that loves the false intimacy of technology and is increasingly uncomfortable with real intimacy. It is much easier to hang up the phone than it is to leave someone’s company. It is much easier to give the best of you on the phone than it is in person. It is much easier to lie on the phone than in person.

This comforts us. Because our society does not value real dialogue. There is so much to talk about, really talk about and we spend an inordinate amount of the time (on the phone and in person) talking about everything but ourselves. When you are on the phone you can talk about yourself without having the person there to really react to what you’re saying. It allows for a wall to be placed around you. It’s like visiting a prisoner. You can cry and say “I love you” and kiss the window and it feels real to you, but it’s not real intimacy. The prisoner can never feel or truly interact with you.

I find that my problem with phone conversation is that the minute I get serious (and I know I’m an overly serious person and that is tiresome) people stop listening. The phone is for mindless chitchat. How was your day? Did so and so piss you off at work again? Is your man trippin? Did you hear what so and so did? This is what we talk about. We never talk about what really ails us, what really moves us, what really matters.

We give up agency on the phone. It’s a back and forth thing. One person says something while the person on the other end “Yesses” and “Mmmhmmms” until it’s their turn to speake. The give and take, the spontaneity of reacting to a physical presence is lost. We fall into a pattern.

I find that usually the person that is a phone person is the person that is the hardest to get to know in person. They are accustomed to the behavior of impersonal telephone conversation. So socialized to communicate in broad generalities and anecdotes, when you talk to that person face-to-face, it can often be stilted. In face-to-face communication, there is very little protocol. It is imperative that one listen and then react. We do not do this. In person, body language tells so much and we read it. You become naked in person. Vulnerability is very difficult in a society that lionizes the cold, hard man and the passionless angry woman.

This is not always the case, clearly. But my point is to interrogate why so many people overvalue the phone and then don’t feel the need to spend the quality face-to-face time as well. Frequently, it’s one or the other. I’m all for talking on the phone and doing the initial meet and greet. But it baffles me how people are so unwilling to meet face-to-face and continue from there. A combination of phone conversations and real face-to-face makes so much more sense to me. But I have met people who never intend to meet you or have conversations (unless they are on the phone). It’s odd to me. And very very sad.

Everyone on the planet uses online personals now and I often wonder if the meetings that come from that are more problematic than the old fashion dating before everything moved into cyberspace. Perhaps this merits more investigation by sociologists. I don’t know. But what I do know (from my own experience, that is) is that I never built friendships or relationships based on phone conversations. Everyone I am friends with or dated was someone I spent large amounts of time with in person. None of my really close friends are phone people, but contrary to popular opinion, they are wonderful conversationalists.

Originally written on June 11, 2005

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