I cannot even count the ways, but I’ll go ahead and try.
I can hear numerous relatives letting loose a heavy sigh as they read this, frustration borne of years of trying to get hold of me with limited success after many tries. Maybe some time spent explaining this once in writing will help.
The antecedents of this go back to when I first got out of college. I found my friends scattered across the continent – people I had spent time with daily were suddenly out of my reach. Almost no one had email back then, and none of us were letter writers, so obviously I turned to the phone. For the first time I came to realize how damned expensive long distance phone calls were, as I entered the adult world and started paying my own bills. This was the first strike against the phone – I couldn’t afford it, is what that boiled down to, but I also had this vague sense that I was being ripped off – how could this be so expensive?!?! Monopolies is how, was about how my thinking went. As far as I can tell I was basically right.
Strike 2 was a coincidence that took many years to sort out. I moved to Yarmouth, Maine probably around … 1995? At first I shared my roommates’ number, but they moved to California, at which point I got my own number. That number received calls from fax machines several times a day at all hours. The phone company was unwilling to help, basically putting it on me – if I could identify the number or numbers faxing me, they might look into it, and oh by way they had a new service I could buy, callerID, to help me figure out who’s faxing my phone. So … fuck them is what came of me trying to get their help. Plan b, an answering machine with the volume turned down and a phone with the ringer off, is what I moved to. Now if you wanted to talk to me, you left a message. I checked now and then, and if I found your message amongst the faxes, I called you back. Eventually…probably.
Meanwhile as this was evolving, email had gotten to the point where it was (almost) mainstream, and I had begun to tell people if they wanted to reach me, they should email me, as the phone was hit or miss. Success with email was also hit or miss – some did, others (my parents for example) it took another decade to bring along.
Around this time I finally figured out why I was getting faxes, completely by accident. My sister came to visit and stopped in the Freeport, Maine visitors’ center, where she spotted my number on a pamphlet in one of those racks of pamphlets you find in such places. Turns out I had been issued the fax number of a candle shop in Freeport, Maine that had gone out of business years previously, but still had pamphlets in the visitors’ center,and …idiots were still trying trying to fax orders to them? I don’t know. Anyway a call to the phone company again netted me nothing, though I didn’t press as hard since to my view I had the problem solved.
Meanwhile the answering machine had begun to accumulate more and more messages – for whatever reason, at this time, national trend or specific to me I do not know, but I was getting literally 2-4 phone calls a night from telemarketers, sometimes even more. Insurance, long distance service (!) and credit card offers were the majority, but it was all kinds of things – chimney sweeps, power washing, vehicle detailing, all kinds of stuff. I began to sometimes just delete messages without hearing them in this era, if I checked and found 9-10 messages on the thing. Who had the patience? It became basically impossible to get me on the phone starting around this time.
Within a couple of years the course of this was almost reversed, because the do not call list came into being, and once I got onto that, miracle of miracles, most of the calls stopped. The faxes had slowly been decreasing too. Suddenly, if I checked my messages, they were (almost) always from someone I was actually interested in hearing from. But then I took a new job and moved to New York. I got my first cell phone, and lo and behold I was issued the previous number of a delivery truck driver for a luncheon meat distributor. Almost every day for the first couple of months I was getting multiple ‘yo, Tony, I need 20 LB of this and 10 of that and return my calls already whydoncha?’ messages. This coupled with the fact that I got no cell reception inside my house meant I was right back to a pattern of behavior – ignore the phone, maybe listen to the messages, maybe delete them. Usually it was just delete them*.
The last and final straw has been work, quite recently. 3-4 years ago, my boss quit and I was appointed interim co-director, a quasi-CIO position. I updated my Linkedin profile to reflect this fact, and within weeks my work phone started constantly ringing – no exaggeration, as many as 5-6 calls a day, all selling IT services and products. Some of them call twice a week like clockwork, some even call more than once a day. Some call repeatedly AND bombard me with ‘did you get my voicemail?’ emails. If I make a mistake and answer these calls, I am either stuck for 30 minutes listening to sales pitches and endless efforts to keep me engaged and on the phone no matter what, or I have to be a dick and just cut people off and hang up. I do not like being a dick to anyone, and despite how annoying they are these folks are just trying to make a living. So – now, even at work, I never, ever, answer the telephone, and the circle is complete. What I really mean is, I never answer telephones, period.
Over the course of years I’ve thought a lot about this, as the preceding paragraphs might suggest. Leaving aside all the inconvenient coincidences and struggles with technology, the base issues for me are that generally I prefer asynchronous communication, and I almost exclusively prefer communications to be on my terms. The former has to do with patterns of behavior and with efficiency. By patterns of behavior, I mean that generally my phone conversations are largely transactional, ie ‘are you coming this weekend? Yes? When? ok, see you then.’ Email is so much more efficient than voice for the majority of my phone calls that there’s no comparison. The latter issue has to do with flow. Phone calls are disruptive, demanding attention on someone else’s terms no matter what I might be engaged in at the time. Email is not – I can attend to it when time permits and it’s convenient. I’ll always choose the latter over the former.
So what does this long winded screed boil down to? Despite huge advances in technology and law (no more sales calls on my cell phone, and I usually can see who’s calling me) and despite me having to be a lot more responsible about things now that I’m married and have kids, I still won’t let myself be inconvenienced by the telephone, and almost 20 years later email is still the best way to get in touch with me.
*(This did bite me in the ass hard once while I was in New York. Unbeknownst to me, my gas company had gotten my mailing address screwed up and started sending my bills to the wrong location. When I failed to pay a bill I had never received, they started leaving me ever more dire voicemail messages. I discovered all this one day when I came home to discover I had no heat, and did not even have a propane tank attached to my house any longer. Still, I learned no lesson from this beyond ‘my gas company sucks!’ which they did cop to).