Sunday, March 17, 2013

Over the abundance of communication

“Psht!” my coworker scoffed loudly from her desk behind my own.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her with only wisp of concern in my voice as I continued typing, already knowing what she’d say.
“Nothing!” She growled.
“C’mon, something’s obviously up.” I coaxed halfheartedly, hoping to cajole her into talking so she might let go of her grudge and reassume her more jovial persona.
“It’s just my boyfriend, he didn’t text me back for like an hour and then when he did he just said – K.”

This is an almost daily frustration for my co-worker. She puts time and effort into sending her BF dozens of text messages throughout the work day and then feels rejected and frustrated when he doesn’t respond right away to each one or responds to her with a thoughtless generic text. Often she will have an annoyed bite in her tone when she’s on the phone with customers or talking to me or other coworkers after such an unfulfilling textchange (or lack thereof). She feels rejected and taken for granted.  I’d be lying if I said I haven’t felt the same way myself when I’ve failed to get a hold of a significant other, but while I do sympathize with my friend, I don’t think she is being reasonable. (Nor am I, when I have similar moments). I also think this is a good reason why cell phone should not be used during work hours.

Text messaging was designed for brief exchanges of vital information and it’s great to that end. When used as a means to carry on a conversation though, it is less than ideal. There are two main problems with textversations. The first is that the tone of a message can be misinterpreted and when intended sarcasm is missed or unintended sarcasm is perceived, it can lead to completely unfounded anger from the recipient of a text. The second problem, is that texting seems “too easy”, but if you’re working on something where there is no such thing as a “small” interruption, it can be impossible to text. So for my co-worker, in the laid back office setting of our company, texting is no big deal, but for her boyfriend who has a more “hands on” job, taking a second to respond to a text is not always physically possible.

In general, it seems like the perceived “ease” of 21st century communication actually has ironically lead, in many ways to a breakdown in communication. Textration (texting frustration), is just one example. This weekend, I was victimized by another side effect of the prevalence of mobile communication: loss of my personal communication device turned me into a walking ghost.

I had flown to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of a high school friend. My parents were out of town and I didn’t have any friends available to pick me up from the airport, so I took an airport shuttle to my parents’ house, where I was staying. I, personally found the shuttle to be only so-so, however, at some point during that 2 hour shuttle ride, my cell phone fell in love with that maxi van, so much so that she decided to stow away and run off with the airport shuttle after it had dropped me off. While my phone and the shuttle were off canoodling somewhere, I found myself at my parents’ house with no computer, (because my parents had taken their lap tops on vacation with them), no home phone (because who bothers with a land line anymore) and no cell phone. INCOMMUNICADO!
 I had discovered the absence of my phone fairly quickly, however, it was nearly midnight and with no means of communication to call the shuttle company, I couldn’t even report my missing phone until the morning. I wasn’t too worried about it though, I figured I’d go find a pay phone in the morning, report that my phone had been left on the shuttle, swing by the office of the shuttle company to pick up my phone and then head off to my friend’s wedding. EASY PEAS-Y right? NOPE!

That Maroon 5 song that was just released last year about “standing at a pay phone trying to call home” is clearly employing a very out of date metaphor because apparently payphones aren’t a THING anymore. When I went to go find one on Saturday morning, I ended up doing a self-guided tour of all of the places I used to use pay phones when I was in high school… back before I’d been locked into a cell (plan) of my own.
 I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone remove a pay phone. It seems like it would be a fairly complicated process to take out all the wires etc, but none the less. It seemed like every single phone I used to use when I was a teenager had vanished. No pay phones at the high school. None by the movie Theatre. No shopping center anywhere seemed to have a pay phone anymore.

An hour into my search, just when I had decided that maybe all the pay phones had been sucked back in time a-la Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I found one. I could have cried when the exterior doors of the Thousand Oaks Library parted with a whoosh and revealed, in all it’s gloriousness, the familiar metal face and black frame of a good old fashioned pay phone. I skipped towards it like a giddy school girl, picked up the banana yellow receiver, which reeked from the years of congealed spit that had built up on the mouth piece, and fished the phone number for the shuttle company out of my pocket.

I was already ecstatic about finding the phone, so when the eerily pleasant bot from the airport shuttle company informed me that I was “the next caller in line and an operator would be with me shortly” I was so jubilant I started dancing along with the hold music. Alright, I’m going to get this whole cell phone thing sorted out and still have time to go back to my parents’ house and relax before I have to get ready for the wedding. Nice!  Twenty minutes later when no one had picked up, I figured the lost and found operator must just be doing a really thorough job with the caller that had been on the line when I called. They must go find each lost item right then and there while you are on the line
, I told myself. After another 5 minutes on hold, it started to occur to me that maybe no one was in the office… yet the chipper bot kept insisting that if I had lost something I should call them immediately and let them know… which I was and I was calling well within the hours of 9-4pm which chipper-shuttle-phone-operator-bot had given (several times) as the operational hours of the customer service office. It’s probably just a really difficult customer getting irate about some lost valuable… or maybe there was a fire in the building. They said the office is open right at this very minute, so it must be something like that… and this is apparently the last pay phone on earth, so if I hang up now I’ll just have to come back again later anyway.  I told myself as I anxiously sat tethered to that smelly pay phone watching my afternoon free time tick away. After 40 minutes on hold I was ready to kill that freakin’ chipper phone operator bot. What is she so freakin’ happy about anyway? Does she get off on spreading lies to gullible human callers about their hours of operation because it seems like no one is in that damn office! I thought before slamming the phone on the receiver.

I called back and dialed an extension –other than the lost and found – and within 3 minutes a real live person picked up the line. My annoyance suddenly vanished and was replaced with relieved delight. I explained my situation to the woman from the shuttle van company (who was not nearly as chipper as her bot counterpart). When I finished, she replied “Oh, well why are you calling customer service? If you lost your phone, you need to call the lost and found department on Monday.”
“I tried to call them earlier today. Why do I need to wait until Monday to call them?” I asked, annoyed.
“Well, it’s Saturday, so they’re closed.” She replied echoing my annoyance.
“Are you kidding me!?” I scoffed, “Why doesn’t the extension for the lost and found give any indication of that? I was on hold for over half an hour and the automated recording said to CALL IMMEDIATELY if you realize you’ve lost something.” I growled.
“I don’t know.” She said simply.
“Well, I wont be in the area anymore on Monday. Isn’t there anything you can do now?” I pleaded.
“Well… If you give me your confirmation number I can check and see if anything was reported found on your shuttle.” The woman said, as if she were doing me a favor akin to promising me a kidney.
I gave her the confirmation number from my shuttle booking and she was able to confirm that my deserting whore of a cell phone was indeed on the shuttle, which was at the driver’s house, and he wouldn’t be back to work until Monday. NOT CONVENIENT… and my own damn fault. I hate when I create unnecessary hassles for myself.  

Somehow, I did manage to survive off the grid for 48 hours, but I felt helpless the whole time. If something had happened to me at my parents’ house I would have been unable to call for help other than shouting at my neighbors. If someone had tried to reach me with any sort of important news, they’d have been unable to and would have had no idea that I was unreachable. I know only a few decades back people got along fine without being so communicative, but now there is a built in expectation that you should be able to contact anyone you know at any time and they should be able to contact you as well, so when you suddenly can’t it’s hard not to feel a little stranded, worrying not only about who you might not be able to call, but also who might be trying to reach you.

As with texting, when someone you’re close with doesn’t answer your call within a few hours, it can be taken as a sign that they are mad at you or something is wrong. The perceived ease of communication in our cell phone laden worlds makes it implicit that not responding is in itself a response. By saying nothing, what a person’s saying is either: “hey, I’m a douche bag who can’t be bothered to get back to you because you’re just not that important to me” ; “ You’re a douche bag – and I’m mad at you! … and I think YOU KNOW WHY, so don’t expect me to return your call any time soon”; or “I’ve been brutally bludgeoned to death by a knavish band of thugs.” Ok, so maybe that’s not everyone’s reaction to not getting a hold of someone or a call back, but for me at least, these are the things that cross my mind. Of course, when the person I’d tried to reach does get back to me and explains that they left their phone somewhere or forgot to turn it back on after attending a meeting or some other logical reasonable thing happened that prevented them from calling me, I (quite rightly) feel like a needy pest. I just get so used to being able to contact anyone and everyone I want that sometimes when I can’t, I feel suddenly powerless and start to panic.

The mere fact that communication is so easy though makes almost all social interactions feel less meaningful. Phones harass you when you are out with others, so face to face interactions can be put on hold while you take a call. By the same turn of the key, calls that come in and interrupt you can be annoying so you may rush someone off the line so you can get back to your live interaction. Plus with facebook, twitter, mass texting and mass emailing people often skip on personal exchanges and opt for more efficient group messages. I am all for efficiency, but when I get a generic text from you on Christmas day that says nothing more than “Merry Christmas”, it means absolutely nothing to me. I just assume I was another box checked in a mass text, so if you don’t feel like putting any more effort than that into your holiday message, then don’t bother… ‘cause if it’s the thought that counts, then your text just told me that you don’t think about me longer than it takes you to check a box.

We are cutting ourselves off from each other by connecting ourselves to a grid that is constantly buzzing in our ears and drawing us away from one social activity for another. If you happen to lose your cell phone and become disconnected from the grid, you become a lonely island un to yourself because no one has home phones anymore and finding a payphone is like finding a pot’o’gold at the end of a rainbow. Thus at the end of the day, the ease of mobile communication, which on the surface gives the illusion of offering “better” connection between family, friends and colleagues, often falls short and instead over-connects us to the point that our social exchanges are less and less meaningful.

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