Technology is killing the art of the telephone conversation

Talking person to person on the telephone is becoming a dying art, replaced by online messages, emails and texts. I long for the phone conversations I used to have which allowed nuance, laughter and the varied timbre of the human voice to forge or maintain relationships with strangers, work colleagues and friends.

In my childhood home the telephone sat behind the “bar” in a nook made from panelled pine, lined on the inside with orange geometric wallpaper, tarnished by years of cigarette smoke exhaled by my parents and their party-loving friends; and glass shelves heaving with drinking paraphernalia. Behind the bar on a green-tiled counter sat the olive-green plastic phone attached to the wall by a long spiral cord.

Long conversations on phones fixed to the wall have gone by the wayside.

Long conversations on phones fixed to the wall have gone by the wayside.Credit:Erin Jonasson

The fat plastic handpiece, with a round moulded earpiece at one end and a matching mouth piece at the other, sat comfortably in the grip of the hand or could be balanced hands-free between the shoulder and the ear, provided the head was cocked at the right angle. Its mechanisms made satisfying noises; a click from the cradle when the handle was plucked from its bed or replaced, and a whirr when the number dial was spun. A wrongly dialled number meant pressing the cradle lever down and starting all over again.

My school friends and I mastered the art of the telephone prank call in the bar, circa 1977. We chose our victims at random from the telephone book to ask if any Walls were at home. We shrieked with laughter and slammed down the phone as our dupes fell for the scam and admitted there were no walls in their house.

Our impersonations of a radio host announcing that our phone targets had won a prize fooled as many people as our Wall act. The phone book and the telephone provided hours of entertainment in a seaside village that did not make provision for bored teenagers. Pulling out tent pegs along the rows of campers on the foreshore in holiday times was another of our delinquent pastimes. We grew out of toppling tents and shady telephone games and moved into new and more challenging territory: calling boys.

I whiled away hours talking, legs stretched out along the bar bench with the light off, feeling snug and safe surrounded by the dark, connected to the wall by the umbilical-like cord. Parents shouted at both ends: “Get off the phone!” There was no circumvention around the single telephone line; no clever inventions that were to yet to come such as answering machines, missed call notification, message bank and the mobile phone.

When I left school and had to move far away to study, a phone booth in the accommodation’s foyer was the only connection to family and home. Home-sick country girls waited in line with coins heavy in their pockets. Talking to family from overseas meant booking a reverse-charge call through an operator.

Later, in houses of my own, I spent more hours tucked into comfortable spaces close to the wall, talking on the phone. We set ourselves up with wine and an ashtray to accompany our comprehensive conversations. The invention of the cordless phone liberated us from the wall.