Originally posted in RETURN
The phone rang in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment. Not a phone. The phone.
It was the late 1980s or early 1990s, I forget exactly when. Mobile phones were an unheard-of luxury, even for a double-income household on the Upper East Side. When the narrator of Will Smith’s breakout hit pretended to talk on his parents’ car phone, rap fans understood why: He was flaunting his wealth. Smith specified “car phone” because back then, a phone was normally something plugged into a wall.
Technically, my family had three phones: in the kitchen, living room, and my parents’ bedroom. All connected to the same landline, were reachable at the same number, and rang at the same time. Effectively, they were the same phone. If I called a friend from the kitchen, mom or dad could listen to both sides of the conversation from their room (although the click of a receiver or drawing of a breath would give away eavesdropping).
Long before caller ID was commonplace, a ringing phone sparked mystery, excitement, and trepidation. The call could have been for my dad, for my mom, or for me. The caller could have been Blockbuster warning us a videotape was overdue, my mom’s hairdresser rescheduling an appointment, or a classmate pranking me. We had no way of finding out without answering (or letting “the machine” pick up and listening to the caller record a message, something sneaky people often did).
Either a high school senior or a college freshman home on break, I was closest to the ringing phone in the living room. I picked it up. A woman asked for my dad.
“May I ask who’s calling?”
His co-worker at the advertising firm gave her name and, in the same breath, contritely acknowledged, “he’s going to scream.”
He probably will, I thought, and knew better than to say aloud.
I told my father who it was. He grabbed the receiver from my hand and, as expected, laid into her for bothering him about a work matter on an evening or weekend, whichever it was. Then he hung up.
Imagine how that interaction would play out for the three parties today, in the age of ubiquitous smartphones, where each family member likely has a personal device and number.
The caller: That poor account executive (or copywriter, or whatever she did for the ad firm) sounded embarrassed to be calling our home outside working hours. I may even have detected a hint of empathy in her voice, as if she knew my father well enough to sense he might take out his frustration on me and my mom. (He often did so verbally, almost never physically, for the record.) Whatever she was calling about, maybe it really couldn’t wait until the next business day.
Nowadays, if Alice needs to reach her co-worker Bob on Saturday, she doesn’t have to risk having to talk to his family member who picks up the landline. She can call Bob directly on his mobile. Only Bob will answer. It’s his phone, with its own number, not the family phone.
What’s more, Alice doesn’t even need to call Bob and risk the indignity of getting yelled at and hung up on. She can just text.
Maybe she’ll get a reply. Maybe not. Maybe the reply will answer her question. Maybe it’ll be all-caps invective. Even then, insults displayed on a screen might not sting as much as insults shouted in her ear. (Besides, in 2023 Bob risks getting in trouble with HR if he leaves a paper trail of abuse, so chances are that no matter the medium of communication, he’ll behave more diplomatically than my dad did, if only out of self-interest.)
Long before caller ID was commonplace, a ringing phone sparked mystery, excitement, and trepidation.
The callee: Caller ID will warn Bob it’s Alice. If he doesn’t want to talk to her, he can decline the call or let it go to voicemail (and maybe later concoct some story about how he was out jogging or doing “deep work.”).
Whatever the outcome, Alice is less likely to feel ashamed for disturbing Bob’s “work-life balance” if she texts instead of calling, or if she calls a personal cell instead of a landline shared among household members. Less risk of shame means less compunction about pushing boundaries.
The rise of smartphones overlapped with and likely accelerated the erosion of any clear and common definition of “business hours.” For many white-collar workers now, they might well include the weekend. Bob has less leverage to push back on co-workers’ intrusions than my dad did. If Bob can’t be bothered to answer a question on Saturday, he can be replaced with a team player who will.
The intermediary: Unlike teenage me, Bob, Jr. does not get caught in the middle. He’s in his room glued to his own phone, probably watching unspeakable filth or addictive viral sludge. To be fair, maybe he’s texting with friends or minting NFTs.
His loss either way.
While it was never fun when my dad threw a fit, the unpleasantness was educational for me. It showed me he had a demanding employer and gave me a preview of the pressures I would face as an adult in the workforce of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Yes, my father could have handled the situation more gracefully. That, too, was a life lesson.
Atomized? Always have been
I am not claiming my parents and I were some paragon of familial cohesion. A quarter-century before the first iPhone debuted, we were well on the road to atomization.
There was no television in the living room. I watched Johnny Carson with mom and dad at the foot of their bed, and 120 Minutes alone in my room. When my parents played show tunes on the car stereo, I drowned it out on my Walkman with Hüsker Dü. (Truthfully, I still can’t blame myself for that.)
And full disclosure: I had my own landline with a different number (which became my dad’s business number after I moved out) in my bedroom (which became his office). Even so, “answer the phone” meant “pick up the main line,” distinct from “answer your phone.”
The Web made the distractions of my adolescence available 24-7 and at least nominally free (often with unseen costs). The smartphone consolidated them onto a handheld device you could take anywhere, even the bathroom. It also displaced an unsung source of domestic bonding.
When family members answered a shared landline, their lives were, in some small way, more intertwined. As long as one member of the household was on a call, others had to wait to make a call, forcing the former to be considerate about hogging the phone and the latter to be patient. Anyone calling us got a busy signal, so they’d have to be patient too.
Answering the phone took less effort than washing dishes or taking out the garbage, but it was a kind of family chore. When the phone rang, someone had to pick it up.
“It’s for you,” we used to say. But while the phone was ringing, it was for all of us.