December 2020 – January 2021

Vox

Hanging on the telephone

By Anna Krien
What happens when kids encounter a landline

The first time it rang, the boys froze. Rocco backed away. I gave Valentino a small push. “Go on, answer it.” Wary, our six-year-old picked up the bone-yellow handset and listened, not saying a word. Suddenly his eyebrows shot up and he slammed the handset down. “It was Grampy,” he whispered, looking at me wide-eyed. 

For 20 minutes the boys, seven and six, had circled the home phone in the kitchen after we plugged it in, leaping back when it rang, gradually moving closer. Eventually they picked up the handset and practised dialling the numbers we’d written on the wall. “You have to say hello,” I advised, hearing tinny querying voices down the line. “And your name.” I gave them examples and they repeated them verbatim. 

Greeting: “Hello Sarah, it’s Rocco, may I speak to Basti?”

Message bank: “Hello Adrian, it’s Valentino. I’d like to speak to Harper. She can call me back on this number.”

Conversation skills: “How are you?”

An hour later, Valentino is deep in conversation, sneakers on the kitchen table, twirling the phone cord in his fingers. “No way!” he squeals at one point. My partner and I exchange looks, trying not to laugh. We make dinner as he chats, and this is brand new. Not just the landline, but the way our six-year-old is talking. Rapidly, he’s building on the lines we gave them. He asks questions – “What book are you reading?” – and describes “his brain” after lockdown – “It’s a bit slow!” He launches into a tune. “Do you know what song this is? Der-ner-neh … der-ner-neh … der-ner-neh, der-ner-neh, deh ner-neh…

It’s “Highway to Hell”. 

Who is this kid? 

For a couple years I’ve had a nagging feeling it was unfair that I could call my friends and family and stay in touch, while our kids remained at the mercy of my partner and I deciding when they could talk on our phones and to whom. Then, as lockdown descended and the boys turned every phone call into FaceTime and every Zoom call into The Blair Witch Project, mugging for the camera while their grandparents tried to speak to them, it struck us that when our children become teenagers and have their own phones, they may remain as infantile. With their friends it was worse: all of them vying to distract each other from looking at themselves to look at them. I realised that this is how YouTube videos such as the one where two boys eat an entire cake, vomit it up into a bucket, then eat the vomit, get made. 

When the lockdown eased, I became a social secretary, messaging the boys’ friends’ parents for hang outs, for footy on the street, for meeting at the park, until finally, losing my shit, I drove to my parents and picked up our old telephone. It was the same phone I used as a kid, with a long whirly cord that I’d get tangled in as I spun and spoke to my friends, the same one I used to lie on the carpet with, saying “You hang up”, “No, you hang up” for hours. 

Valentino, we quickly learnt, was born to speak on the landline. We ought to have known – after all, he’s always done the asking, standing in front of his older brother, slightly belligerent, asking why the footpath is being dug up or if any fish have been caught. Rocco takes longer to warm to the phone, his voice is quiet, often forgetting to say anything at all, just taking calls, his brow furrowed. 

“The human voice is one of our most powerful instruments,” says Professor Barbara Keys, an American historian and author formerly at the University of Melbourne. Her writing in 2018 about the landline telephone and its role in sustaining activist movements from the 1950s to the ’80s had a rash of radio hosts clamouring to speak to her. Keys reminisced on the airwaves about the humble landline – an invention that in the late 1800s met with cynicism (famously, a chief engineer at the British Post Office in 1878 claimed the telephone would never take off in Britain because the nation had a “superabundance of messengers, errand boys”). From rotary dial to push buttons, answering machines to call waiting: listeners called in to riff with Keys on the constant innovations to the landline. And yet, as the professor pointed out, all of it revolved around a single concept – having a conversation.

The human voice evolved, explained Keys, not merely to convey information but to build intimacy, and the landline allowed people to talk as though they were present together.

“Touch and hearing are related; we hear because sonic vibrations touch our eardrums,” Keys wrote in TheJournal of Interdisciplinary History, observing the cleverness of telecommunications company AT&T’s literal slogan in the ’80s: “Reach out and touch someone.” The addition of the landline to print-propelled activism, she continues, though labour intensive (think “phone trees”, where each person calls 10 people), served to create a “psychological neighborhood” that may well explain the longevity of social-justice movements in the pre-digital age. Phone calls – that is, actually speaking to each other – Keys believes, “built trust and social capital, circulated emotions and solidified emotional commitments, and created and reinforced networks of social obligation”.

Of course, we can still chat today on our mobile phones (though Telstra reiterates World Health Organization recommendations to use hands-free devices for calls, to keep phones away from head and body during calls, and to limit the number and length of calls), but, for the most part, people choose not to talk. Instead, we text, share gifs, scroll through social media and forward various calls to arms – methods of communication not without merit but which lack that sense of communion a conversation can provide. There is no satisfaction, which is why, I guess, so many of us are glued to our smartphones, forever striving for something that will never be still. 

Speaking to ABC Radio’s Rod Quinn, Barbara Keys said we have forgotten how powerful it is to use our voices. Not in a symbolic sense, but our actual, living, breathing voice. Referring to a Harvard Business Reviewstudy that found face-to-face requests were 34 times more successful than emails, Keys said that making the call, speaking to a person, is by far the most effective form of communication. “It is about bringing our humanity to bear with whatever we want to accomplish.” Today it is likely there are more phones in the world than at any other time in history, and yet we’re failing to connect. 

At home, the “brrring” of the landline is still strange. I find I have no Pavlovian instinct to answer it, but instead watch the boys scramble to it. 

As for the seven-year-old, we weren’t sure if he would find his voice, so curious and caring in person, on the landline. Then, on the morning after the AFL grand final, he went straight to the phone, picked up the handset and pressed the rubber buttons. Pretending not to notice, I pricked my ears. “Morning, Granny,” came his soft voice. “Did you watch the game?” He spoke to his grandparents, then made call after call, to his cousin, his uncle and his friend Basti. “I can’t wait to see you at school tomorrow,” he said at the end of the last conversation before hanging up. (“See? This is why people say ‘hanging up’,” we’d told them, showing them how to hook the handset.) He padded out of the kitchen happily, oblivious to my melted heart at the stove.

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is the author of Night Games: Sex, power and sport and Into the Woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests, and the Quarterly Essays Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals and The Long Goodbye: Coal, Coral and Australia’s Climate Deadlock. Her debut novel, Act of Grace, was published in 2019.

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