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Fewer Landline Phones Lead To Loss Of Manners, Conversation, And Writing Skills

April 13, 2016

I often hear people discussing why so many young people–even those in higher education–have too few skills at writing, conversation, and certain social graces.  There are many reasons for the shortcomings.  From family structure, technology, to education shortfalls there are a raft of reasons as to why Johnny can not spell, write a paragraph or know how to dress for church.    Not any one reason can be held up for this happening.  But as the newspaper allowed us to see today even the loss of the landline phone has contributed.

Nearly half of U.S. households no longer have landlines and instead rely on their cellphones, up from about 27% five years ago, the National Center for Health Statistics says. Among young adults ages 25 through 34, fewer than one-third have landlines. Even at homes with landlines, the phone rings mainly with telemarketers and poll-takers.

Few miss being tethered by a cord to a 3-pound telephone. But family landlines had their pluses. Small children had an opportunity to learn telephone manners, siblings had to share, and parents had to set boundaries governing its use. Now, the shared hub of family communication has given way to solo pursuits on mobile devices.

Eric J. Parker was taught as a child to answer the phone: “Parker residence. How can I help you?” His father was an anesthesiologist who sometimes got calls at home from hospitals or physicians, says the Weston, Mass., attorney. Greeting all callers in a polite, formal way “was something my mother baked into us. We had a front-end role. We represented the family to the outside world.”

Mr. Parker’s 13-year-old daughter Myranda never uses the family landline; she texts her friends. She enjoys teasing her dad about a vintage black desktop telephone installed in his basement workshop, calling it “his phone from the 1900s.”

Tracy Kurschner learned as a toddler to spell her name by listening to her mother spell it for others on the phone. “She’d say, ‘Hello, this is Mrs. Zajackowski, Z-A-J-A-C-K-O-W-S-K-I,’” says Ms. Kurschner, a Minneapolis communications consultant. “People were just shocked that I knew how to spell my name by age 3.”

She also listened to her mother’s nightly phone conversations with her grandmother, asking how doctor appointments had gone and whether her grandmother was feeling well and getting her daily naps and vitamins. Ms. Kurschner continued the tradition, making nightly calls to her own parents and inviting her three children, now 23, 20 and 14, to listen and participate.

Overhearing adults’ phone conversations taught children “the nurturing work of adulthood,” such as setting up doctor appointments or planning activities for loved ones, says Sherry Turkle, author of “Reclaiming Conversation” and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Now all that work is done silently, by tapping on a keyboard.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. pattilynn9 permalink
    April 14, 2016 6:23 AM

    Thx for sharing the excerpt from your book! It was great reading! I really enjoyed hearing your memories of your youth/family times.

    ~ Unfortunately, we still lose electric power during stormy weather. It’s so odd how the opposite side of the street seldom has the outages our side suffers. They must be on a different transformer. Oh, and we often hear our transformer blow. Ya’d think we lived in the sticks and not a major metro area. It bugs me thinking about the food in the freezer…and my hub always wants to open the door to check on things. I keep yelling shut the door…not a fun time around here when the power is out. Guess I should just dig out the ice cream and spoon my worries away. haha!

  2. April 13, 2016 8:17 PM

    Patti–this is how I wrote of the phones from my youth in “Walking Up The Ramp”.

    The folks out in the country where I grew up were friendly. We called each other by our first names. In those winter months when people don’t get out as much, it could seem as though one were living all alone on those country roads. At other points in the year, one might get the opposite impression. People seemed to know too much. I have long contended that if you don’t tell people about your life, they will invent one for you. This lack of privacy in a small town is part of growing up in a rural area.

    ‘Ma Bell’, as the phone company was once called, was perhaps the biggest gossip in town. I grew up in a time when ‘party lines’ connected a small group of people. The party line was an arrangement in which two or more telephone customers were connected directly to the same local loop. (Prior to World War II in the United States, party lines were the primary way residential subscribers acquired local telephone service.) Here is how it worked: in order to distinguish one line subscriber from another, operators developed different ringing cadences for the subscribers, so that if the call was for the first subscriber to the line, the ring would follow one pattern such as two short rings, if the call was for the second subscriber, the ring would sound another way, such as a short ring followed by a long one, and so on. Since all parties utilized the same line, it was possible for subscribers to listen in on other subscribers’ calls.

    In other words, one of the ways to find out the comings and goings of those in the area was to pick up the phone and find out if anyone was talking. Then, you had to be very still so as not to alert the other participants to the call that you are listening. One could always find out some news. Of course, any such news gleaned from another family’s calls was always shared in the house, with the understanding that we act like it were the first time we heard it, if and when we heard it coming from someone from outside the house!

    For my family at least, listening in on the neighbors’ phone calls was not something that we did often. When the weather was wild outside, with the snow and wind making drifts that mounded around the house, my Mom would want me to listen in on the party line, and find out the news. She wanted to know the conditions of the roads and if people were making their way home safely. Gently and quietly, I would lift the receiver so no one could hear the click, and pick up the needed news. It might be noted that President Nixon was tapping phones in Washington at the time that I was eavesdropping on conversations in Hancock. I claim the “Everyone Else, Including the President, is Doing It” defense. The major difference between what was going on at my house, and what was happening at the White House was that our illicit deeds were not being audio taped. You could say that our calls all took place within the space of those eighteen and a half minutes of accidentally erased material! In reality, Mom and I just hoped Dad could make it home for dinner on roads that were not blocked with drifts.

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the mid-century telephone was not when it was in use, but when the summer storms made the metal appliance ring and jangle. My parents never allowed anyone in the dining room during the massive summer storms, as it was not uncommon to have blue flashes of light to come forth from the phone as it hung on the wall as it drew the lightning. It was awesome to see, thought it made some in my family really nervous.

    So while Hancock was rural, and at times even rustic it was also special. Living out in the country meant that experiencing a day and night without power at least once each winter due to an ice storm was just as common as the summer evenings when the whippoorwill birds would call.

    In the summer when trees would topple over somewhere in the area and take out our electricity, big decisions had to be made. One of those concerned the ice cream in the freezer. Was the electricity going to be out so long that it would melt since in those days ice cream always came in a light cardboard box? Might we need to eat it before it melted and made a real mess? Oh, how often we failed to have faith in the speed and efficiency of the power company! With spoons we would set out to make sure Mom’s freezer would not be covered with melted sweetness.

  3. pattilynn9 permalink
    April 13, 2016 7:32 PM

    We have a landline, but took the long distance off it yrs ago. I’ve thought of getting rid of it entirely, but our cells have spotty coverage at our home (altho we’ve put up an antennae to help the signal, somewhat). So, for 911/emergency services, we still have a landline (altho we do unplug it a lot when we get too many unwanted calls.

    Makes sense re: the benefits listed above.

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