My six-year-old daughter made a friend on vacation and for two weeks they were inseparable, forming a storybook bond of friendship. The only challenge is we live in New York and the new friend lives in San Diego. Lucky for us we live in an age of technology; FaceTime at our fingertips. Our first call was from the airport and the girls giggled with delight at seeing each other’s faces (even though we just left 6 hours ago) and all they managed to say was “I miss you” and “I love you.”
They tried again a few days later and even though there were new things to share, neither my daughter nor her friend could come up with them when they were put on the spot. They were simply overwhelmed by the sheer magic of seeing each other on the screens. I don’t take this capability for granted; I grew up in the 1980s still having to rely on the old-fashioned operator to facilitate our phone calls to relatives in the former Soviet Union.
Observing their communication plight made me take note: talking on the phone is actually a skill; an exercise in stretching your brain. Using the telephone was forcing the girls to formulate thoughts first, string correct words together into sentences which conveyed their experiences and emotions – all without body language or emoticons as shortcuts.
When the girls met, their friendship blossomed easily, but they quickly saw how it was harder to connect and communicate with a device. The irony being how most adults prefer communicating digitally nowadays. More people than ever have cell phones but fewer people than ever are using them to speak. We use them to take selfies and post them to Instagram. We use them as a GPS and to record our daughter’s ballet recital. We use it to text our friends but we rarely use it to talk anymore.
Witnessing this communication struggle has reinforced how real life allows for a truer connection than a calculated, potentially misinterpreted digital one.
I didn’t want to go all Cyrano de Bergerac on my daughter’s new relationship, but I wanted to capitalize on the learning moment and help her build and maintain this friendship. I suggested my daughter think of a few things she’d like to tell her friend ahead of their conversation and make a short list so when they see each other’s pixilated reflections and get overcome with excitement, my daughter can look down and read her notes. [Overbearing nerd mom alert?]
I admit I used to make bulleted lists of things I wanted to discuss with people. This was back when talking on the phone was a thing, which it especially was in junior high and high school. My grandmother talked on the phone for hours at a time; she’d hang up with one friend and call the other, all while making cakes or playing cards, the extended cord knotted in five places, the receiver perched to her ear, her neck in a permanent phone bend. My mother mimicked this behavior. When I picture her in my teenage years, I see her on our brown leather couch, smoking a cigarette, holding a pastel colored drink with ice cubes, and a phone cradled to her ear.
I didn’t love being on the phone like my mom was, but at the same time, I spent hundreds of hours on the phone. In all of my 13 years of corporate jobs, “being on the phone with clients” was an essential part of my job description. The teenage me would have thought getting paid to chat on the phone was awesome; the 20-something and 30-something me resented it from allowing me to wear earrings.
I realize now how the art of phone conversation is a talent, which must be honed and refined, not just inherited.