According to the New York times, it’s fashionable to hate the phone (“Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You,” by Pamela Paul, NYT, March 28, 2011). I appreciate some of the anti-phone arguments. If a telemarketer rings you up at the dinner hour , it tends not to improve the evening. If you work as a journalist, you will be the recipient of long, long voicemail messages from flaks who want to follow up the three emails they sent following up on the long, long voicemail message they left last week. That’s pesty, as Eric Carle might say. And I have no illusions that my fellow Metro riders want to hear me wrangling with my spouse via cell phone about what we’re going to have for dinner.
The phone is annoying, intrusive, clunky. Why not just email? So much less intrusive, so much easier. But lately I’ve been reminded what there is to love about the phone. So here’s a mini-paean to that irksome device.
Working as a journalist, I talk to people a lot. I ask them questions. I ask them to explain to me what they do and why it interests them and why it ought to interest other people too. I ask them what they think about news like this week’s ruling against the proposed settlement in the lawsuit over Google’s book-digitizing program. I ask them what it’s like to spend two years in the Bodleian recreating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein notebooks.
It’s perfectly possible to have a good interview, sometimes a great one, via email. There are times when it’s the only way to reach someone who’s on the road or who feels skittish about talking to the press. It’s also a handy way to make arrangements for interviews and to gather background material or ideas about other experts to speak with. It’s essential now to what I do.
Here’s what I can’t get from email: the sound of someone’s voice, a hint of where she or he grew up, what linguistic and cultural influences might have shaped the way that person speaks and perhaps thinks. Talking via email, I can’t spontaneously take a conversation in new direction or follow up easily on a verbal queue or stray thought. I can’t share or appreciate a joke the way I can viva voce. I’m not likely to hear my interlocutor’s offhand observations about what the weather’s like where he is, or what she’s seeing out her office window. The better and more engaging the conversation, the better and more engaging the story I write is likely to be.
A month or so ago, a source in the U.K. asked me whether the snowdrops were blooming here, as they’d just started to do there. I remember another source, an open-access advocate, describing to me the fox he’d just seen run across his snow-covered yard. The fox didn’t make it into the story but it made that person more vivid to me, and maybe it helped me write more vividly about the subject. It’s also satisfying, on a personal level, to have a grounded sense of the person on the other end of the conversation. I love it when I get to call someone in the U.K. or Australia or a part of the U.S. I don’t know; it depends on the conversational chemistry, but often after those calls I hang up feeling that I’ve learned something about the place as well as about my source and the subject at hand.
So count me a fan of the phone as a genuine connector of people and places. Just don’t call me during dinner.