Why Not Talk on the Phone?

by Dave Michels

Of all the devices we use for communications, the good ol telephone is the odd one out. Is it because the others are that much better, or because there is some stigma associated with talking on the phone? The answer is actually a bit of both.

Believe it or not, we’ve been trained by an evolutionary society not to blab on the phone. It was considered abusive of a precious resource! Do you think our forefathers went to all this trouble to string copper to every single home so you can socialize? It’s a lot of copper, a lot of switches, and a ton of infrastructure in general – so keep your gossip to in-person social circles. The phone network is for serious and important matters only.

Did I convince you?

From the book America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. 

For many years, telephone companies thought that social use of the phone (visiting, gossiping, and other personal uses) was an abuse of the service and discouraged such use. They thought in terms of their previoius work with the telepgraph, even referring to calls as messages and mesauring use in Message Units.

The marketers of telephone service were slow to employ as a sales tool the use that was to dominate the home telephone’s future, sociable conversation. The story of how and why the telephone industry discovered socialability provides a few lessons in the nature of technological diffusion. It suggests that the promoters of a technology do not necessarily know or decide its final uses; that they seek problems or needs for which their technology is the answer, but consumers themselves develop new uses and ultimately decide which will predominate. The story suggests that in promoting a technology, vendors are constrained not only by its technical and economic attributes but also by an interpretation of its uses that is shaped by its and their histories, a cultural constraint that can persist over many years. This insistence of consumers on visiting over the telephone and the eventual adoption of the socialability theme in the industry’s campaigns to educate the public presents a case in which a use was found and propelled by the consumers of a technology.

The pleasures of visiting on the phone have always been subject to social guilt, so now that we have alternatives we can finally talk about it.

Hat tip: Dan Bricklin