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The Telephone and Social Interaction

Before the phone was invented, people communicated by letter. While it was possible to send someone with a note or card if you wanted to get a message to an acquaintance or family member within the same town or city and get a reply in return. However, in general if the person you wanted to contact lived some distance away you could have an agonizing wait to find out what they were going to say.

The telephone made interaction easy and immediate – if you wanted to organize a night out or a party, you could do so straight away. However, the telephone was still regarded as rather casual for many years (even in the 70s, it was considered good manners to write an invitation rather than phone). It could take two weeks to organize a dinner party – nowadays you could have it all sewn up in 10 minutes.

In business, before the telephone, all interaction had to take place either by letter or face to face. Decisions could take weeks to come to pass and business meetings had to be organized around all the delegates’ timetables. Now, phones are used for many meetings, with conference calls (and videoconferencing) becoming increasingly common – a half-hour window in the diary is all you need. While the world has indeed got smaller, there is now far less need for professionals to travel around the world to meet clients and colleagues in other towns or even countries. They can talk in real time and make instant decisions.

The telephone has helped the move towards a more casual attitude when it comes to social and business interaction. No longer is the managing director just a name on the heading of a business letter, met only by senior managers allowed to travel to head office to see him or her. Now, they are at the end of the phone line, just like everybody else.

And the formal aspect of organizing your social life has also disappeared – nowadays the only time you’ll get a written invitation is to a wedding. A phone call is often all that’s needed to RSVP.

The rise of the mobile phone has accelerated this – we’re all available, 24-7, whether we’re on work time or not – and of course we are available at work to take social calls on our own mobiles. And when it comes to work, the telephone (along with the computer and the internet) has led to an expectation for instant results – make a call, get the sale; make a call and arrange that meeting; make a call and instantly get the figures you need to finish a presentation.

In some ways, it allows us to be less organized – you can always call to get that last detail you need for your report, or make a quick call to confirm where you’re going to meet for a drink – or call to say you’re on your way when you’ve caught the train. We all expect to be kept up to date, wherever we are and whatever the time of day. With the phone (and particularly the mobile phone) this is not an unrealistic expectation.


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