While the world transitions almost fully to personal cell phones, there is something being lost with the disuse of home phones, or land lines. The opportunity for instruction. The gateway to the family. And cultivation of healthy socialization. Before these concepts get developed, allow the disclaimer that I have no illusions that culture will change overnight and suddenly the unrelenting grind of technological advancements will somehow reverse itself in a startling moment of moral clarity. Of course not. But the least that can be done, while the killing off part of our cultural heritage takes place, is to be fully awake and aware of what’s happening. An acknowledgement is in some way, a gesture of honor for what is lost.
The opportunity for instruction:
At the age of four or five, children were once taught to answer the family phone in this way: “Hello, this is ______.” The caller then asked to speak to someone. The child responds “Just one moment please.” End of basic instruction. These first lessons in politeness and speaking to adults not only set the stage for “real life” conversations, but they are tremendously effective because answering the phone is an important, real responsibility. Lessons are always best learned in the actual context of real life and there is no more pointed and effective way to teach a child lasting politeness than by trusting them with a significant task, rather than hoping they soak in the lessons from a sing-song dinosaur on television. The first phone calls were entrusted to the child while the parent stood encouragingly nearby. Later lessons included how to field solicitors or strangers, how to take a message and how to properly make a phone call. The family phone was a useful, educational tool.
The gateway to the family:
When people get a personal cell phone, they are no longer sought at a communal number. Their acquaintances and friends generally call the number that will ensure a direct and usually immediate response from the person with whom they want to speak. But cutting out the middleman actually has some side effects too. Primarily, land lines reinforced the identification of a family unit. Members do not exist in and of themselves. When calling a family line, callers are reminded of the network of individuals who live there. In some ways, the family line was always a sort of social safety check too. Parents knew who their children’s friends were for the most part. Young boyfriends couldn’t reach a father’s daughter without going through the family line. And men and women weren’t engaging in extramarital conversations via chat boxes or text message. By going through the household line to communicate healthy, fairly transparent interactions, the false intimacy that screen conversations sometimes now produce was impossible. Home phones were also excellent, necessary tools for parents who went out and left an older child in charge. The babysitter had a way to reach the parents (on their cells) or make emergency calls, without necessitating the current trend to give young teens their “own” phones (arguably opening the floodgates to other problems). Lastly, parents could call their home, speak to a child on the family line, and be able to get a fair gauge on how the hired babysitter was doing or what the state of the house was. The family phone served as a publicly visible entry to the family.
Cultivation of healthy socialization:
Without going into all the dangers of living in a culture becoming more isolated than ever (despite being more connected than ever), it’s clear that household phones offered an excellent moderation to human communication. Because of their range and limitedness, people were forced to eventually hang up the receiver and resume living in the present, interacting in 3D with the real people around them. Nothing beats the authenticity of realtime, face-to-face communication. The disuse of landlines has contributed to a new culture of people constantly furrowed over their smartphones, engaging in the e-world, with their pocket-network fan club. Home phones allowed us to talk freely with friends and family far away, and to deal with businesses or officials that needed to be dealt with. This was good and healthy. But now, we are expected to be always on. Always reachable. And those living in the real world next to us—whether they are our spouses, children or friendly strangers in a waiting room, are suffering because of our ‘absence’.
Will the dwindling number of home phones ever grow completely extinct? Projections would seem to indicate yes. But here’s to hoping that there are just enough thoughtful people left in the world who can see how quickly human interaction has shifted and who will be intentional in developing habits to reclaim meaningful connection where it still exists. And here’s to hoping that trend will spread.