COLUMN: Life goes on in the age of email

— When the phone rings, no one answers.

That’s been my experience lately with some phone calls I tried to make. When I was growing up, it was considered common courtesy to let the phone ring seven times then hang up if no one had yet answered. I don’t know anyone anymore who has their answering machines set to go seven rings. But I often get these messages: “I’m either not in my office or I’m on another line” or “The mailbox is full. Please try again at a later time.” Or the dreaded home-grown experiment with music and multiple voices chiming in to wish me a ggggrreat day. Ugh.

Maybe my assumption that phone calls and personal visits are preferred to email and texting may be flawed. Phone calls, too, are starting to be rounds of tag, to the point where “phone tag” is a common expression that everyone recognizes. I haven’t checked to see if it’s in the dictionary yet. I mean the paper one, the big thick volume you turn page by page. Dictionary.com was an afterthought.

For years I’ve been a strong proponent of face-to-face meetings and the importance of personal interaction. Eye contact and facial expression mean a lot to me because they help me navigate the vagaries of social encounters (key word: vagaries). I’m often thrown off-course by the tone of voice in a phone message, or the perceived word choice in a black-and-white email. I need all the additional cues I can get to help me know what the sender meant.

I’m starting to realize, however, that what qualifies as personal interaction varies between people and, especially, between generations. My pre-teens are so familiar with IMing and chat rooms that they speak as if they were actually with their friends for these conversations. Just the other night I was on a late-night walk with my youngest. We like to bundle up and go out under the stars at bedtime, catching up on the day’s news and then falling silent under the soporific spell of the moon (search on “Peter Rabbit”).

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