The man-machine connection
Neil Gussman can't fathom this type of thinking. He loves the telephone. After regaining consciousness following a near-fatal bike crash, the first thing he asked for was his cellphone. Talking, he says, is the best way to truly know what a person is thinking and how he is really doing.
"By telephone, I get so much more information out of people," says Gussman, 58, of Philadelphia. "It has intonation and feeling. You can't edit your voice if you're surprised. Most people will betray a little bit of it. I can tell if something is going wrong, or if they're actually happy."
And while emailing and texting have become commonplace in the business world, conversation expert Debra Fine warns against relying on it too much. Business is about relationships, after all, and if you're just a name on a screen, you're easily dispensed with.
"When a client hears my voice, I feel we are making a human connection," says Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. "I want my clients to feel connected because then they are more likely to hire me. It is easier to avoid me if they don't have a human connection."
Available to all
But there are those who say the telephone makes us too available, especially to those we don't want to talk to. Marcia Noyes, 57, of Golden, Colo., is counting the months left on her landline contract because she can't wait to get rid of the thing.
"My phone rings off the wall, and it's nothing more than people looking for donations and salespeople," Noyes says. "So I completely ignore it." The only time the landline could have been useful was when her community issued evacuation orders by telephone in advance of a threatening wildfire. Because they never answer the phone, her family never received the alert. Fortunately there was no damage to her home, and she did learn that she could give her local fire station her cellphone number for future advisories.
Ways to keep up
So how does Noyes communicate? She uses her iPhone to email, text-message and update her Facebook account. Upon finishing a marathon, she found it much easier to update her Facebook status with her accomplishment than to field repetitive phone calls from well-wishers. If she does talk on the phone, it's usually to reach her father.
"I would love to get my dad texting so I could keep in touch that way," she says. "But it's a struggle for people who don't have good eyesight."
Like many parents of teens and young adults, Noyes found herself texting more as her children — ages 17, 20 and 21 — took to the technology. If she wants to reach her two oldest, who are in college, she knows better than to try to call. Instead, she texts as a way to check in or set up a time to talk. And then there are weekly video Skype chats that give her the comfort of seeing her kids, hearing their voice and seeing their body language.
But while people might be using their phones for a myriad activities other than talking, it doesn't mean they've given up the habit. According to Nielsen Company statistics, the average older adult uses 400 talk minutes a month on their mobile phone, half the time 18- to 24-year-olds spend. Fine argues that texting, Facebook and email have allowed people to remedy an ugly truth about the telephone: It's rude.