Rona Maynard Let's Talk

Letters from Rona

Not a phone person


Early on in my friendship with Sarah, she advised me not to phone her. I was perfectly welcome to ring; I just shouldn't expect a voice-to-voice conversation. Sarah doesn't like to be caught off guard. She wants to know what's on someone's mind before she frames her reply. She loves the freedom e-mail gives her to be funny and warm when she's in the mood for connection. No one writes more a more expressive message than Sarah. But as she told me at our first girlfriends' dinner, she is simply "not a phone person."

This struck me as odd---for about 30 seconds. Then I had to admit that I'm not a phone person, either. Haven't been since the dawn of e-mail. You know that saying "Middle age is when the phone rings and you hope it's not for you?" I could have coined it. And don't get me started on cell phones (I do carry one, but grudgingly). What astonishes me, when I stop to think about it, is how quickly I've shed my former dependence on the phone and how subtly but profoundly this choice has affected my life.

I grew up in a household with a squat, black rotary phone that whirred and clicked when you dialled. It sat in our hall, within eavesdropping distance of the whole family. My father had an extension in his study upstairs, and if I got there before he did I could shut the door, put my feet on his desk and unburden myself to my best friend for the next hour, or as long as my luck would hold. I'd twist the cord around my finger while the two of us described our moods of the moment in exquisite detail.

These exchanges consisted as much of eloquent sighs as of actual dialog, to the acute annoyance of my phone-deprived parents. For this they had to put off a call to the plumber? Some times they'd spoof what they overheard, hoping to shame me into curbing my phone habit. Not a chance. For another 15 minutes' communion with my friend Anne, I'd have gone without dessert, unplugged my record player and let my pesky sister wear my pink-and-orange beads. What I said to Anne was never really the point. I craved the comfort of knowing she was there to hear me breathe.

I thought of those years when my son reached his teens and our one phone line came under assault. As a full-time freelance journalist, I relied on that line to research my stories. Suddenly I found myself repeatedly stalled in mid-interview by some kid or other who just had to speak to my son. My standard reply---"You'll have to wait, I'm working"---bought me five minutes of peace before the kid returned to plead, "I NEED to speak to Benjy." So it went every five minutes until I faced the truth. When you're 14 years old and you want your friend's ear, you're not about to take no for an answer.

It's not just for the young, this flowering of friendship on the phone. I've known plenty of women who seldom let a day go by without calling a sister of the heart or blood. They don't need arrangements to make or news to share. They just need to hear each other's voices. This hasn't been my style since adolescence. Yet I'm still moved, with a faint wistfulness, by the intimacy some women find on the phone. Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, poets and best friends, had dedicated phones at their desks, used only to confer about poems. Kumin later recalled, "We sometimes connected with a phone call and kept the line linked for hours at a stretch. We whistled for each other when we were ready to resume."

When I crave companionship at my desk, I shoot someone an e-mail or log onto Twitter. Buoyed by a virtual smile and the promise of a lunch date, I return within minutes to the task at hand. Staying in touch took a lot more concentration 20 years ago, when I worked at home as a full-time freelance journalist. I'd flip through my address book. Stop at Joanna's name (how was her trip to France?). Give her a ring, leave a message on her machine. On to Charlotte or Chris or Lynda. I recall a few awkward moments of the kind that e-mail heads off---waking Joanna up (she worked shifts), finding Lynda surprised and a little annoyed to be hearing from me (turned out she'd dropped all her old friends). But most people were delighted to hear my voice, even if I'd caught them in the middle of something. They answered with a vividness that dashed-off e-mails can't convey. In those days we were all phone people.

My source for the story about Sexton and Kumin is Diane Wood Middlebrook's fascinating Anne Sexton: A Biography.

I often write about women and friendship. Click here to read "The year of friends lost and found."




Posted by Rona October 22, 2009 @ 1:44 PM. File in Between friends


Your comments

Number of Comments  3 responses to "Not a phone person"

Lynne Stevenson
October 26, 2009 at 5:05AM
Ms. Maynard,
It has always been my contention that answering machines and caller ID are the best inventions ever made! If I want to return someone's call, I will, if not, I simply hit the delete button and the problem is solved. I am not much for talking on telephones either and don't get the current cell phone craze. I don't know anyone I want to talk to that badly unless I have car trouble. I do keep a pre-paid cell phone in my car in case of an emergency, and that is the only time I use it. I think there are three people tops who know my cell number.
Rona Maynard
October 28, 2009 at 11:11 AM
I remember being told that my cell phone was for emergencies, not for taking calls. Hah! As soon as you've got one, everybody wants you to be standing by to chat while they're stuck in traffic.
Jules Torti
October 26, 2009 at 8:08AM
I'm ignoring the ringing phone as I'm writing this! Another confession? I am not a phone person either--in fact, I win. At the supposedly tech savvy age of 35, I don't even have a cell phone anymore (and many friends threaten to disown me because of this). However, I too was a teenage chatterbox and my siblings and I tormented each other daily by pulling the jack out of the wall if the conversation was going on too long. Our rotary dial was only replaced when the "9" could no longer be dialed. And the cord, it was a mile long. One could even sit outside by weaving that cord around the kitchen table and out the patio door. I think we invented the "portable phone" back in the 80s ourselves.
Rona Maynard
October 28, 2009 at 11:11 AM
A 35-year-old without a cell phone? I didn't know such exotic creatures existed. I often have fantasies about ditching my own and with it the expectation of constant availability. But that's a story for another time!
Carol Harrison
November 02, 2009 at 4:04PM
I understand how your friend Sarah, feels....I'm not a phone person either. I have social anxiety disorder and don't generally like talking on the phone unless it's a medical phone call. I too have call display so if I don't feel like talking, I just let the caller leave a voice-mail msg. I can use the phone to make appointments or talk to anyone to do with health, but personal calls, no, I can't handle that! I love my computer and using e-mail. My spouse has a cousin who can talk, almost non-stop and if she can keep the conversation going, that's ok. I try to keep my cool while talking but....if there's a break in the conversation, I start to get somewhat anxious. Once upon a time, when I'd talk on the phone, there'd be a lot of "pregnant" pauses and I'd get so anxious, I'd almost do anything, even white lie to make excuses to get off the phone and it would bug my spouse as he makes his living on the phone. Me....I'd rather IM or e-mail.
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