The unplanned conversation

I have a confession to make. I don’t know how to have an unplanned phone conversation. The other day, an old friend called me from out of the blue and it was strange.

It wasn’t that hearing from a friend was strange, nor was it strange that this particular friend contacted me. What was so strange to me was that there was no prior planning. No text or email ahead of time scheduling a time to chat. No seeing each other in person and saying, “Hey, I’ll call you later.” Nothing of the sort. It was just a phone call, out of the blue, and it caught me completely off guard.

Why was I so taken aback? What has happened to me over the years that a regular old phone call would throw me for a loop? Am I the only one who feels this way?

“The medium is the message.” It’s a phrase coined by Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan, with the basic idea being that the form of the message plays a vital role in the way in which that message will be perceived. The medium through which we choose to communicate holds as much, if not more, value than the message itself.

I find that there is much truth to this. Consider our numerous forms of communication as we’ve progressed not only technologically, but as human beings, as well. Innovation has led us through various modes of communication, from grunts and smoke signals to Zoom meetings. From hand-written notes and telegraphs to radio, television, and internet. From email and cell phones to text messaging and FaceTime.

My point is to look at these various forms of communication and consider how different the message is depending on the medium. The aforementioned scenario is a simple illustration of my point. The fact that my friend chose to call me rather than send a quick text or lengthy email said to me, “Hey, you might be in the middle of something, but maybe you’re not, and I want to talk with you now, not later when we make time to schedule a time to talk.” A phone call has more of a sense of immediacy. Not necessarily urgency, but rather the old-school mindset that didn’t concern itself with planning when to talk.

Perhaps this old friend is one of the exceptions to my new rule—which until now I hadn’t really considered was my new rule—that says that in order to have a phone conversation, I have to schedule said conversation in advance in the form of a text message, email, or brief conversation in passing. Now when did that happen? Is it because life is so busy that I feel like both parties need to fit the other one into their schedule? As if my schedule is so rigid? Hardly! Maybe part of me believes that an unplanned phone conversation isn’t being respectful of other people’s time.

Or maybe my mindset is still living back in the days of snail mail, or its more modern cousin, email. I want to communicate on both my own terms and that of the other. I want to be able to have a conversation that isn’t restricted by time or schedules. A medium that isn’t so rushed and time sensitive.

Snail mail and good old-fashioned pen pals will forever be my most favorite form of communication. Recently, I was looking through some old letters I had kept from my high school days, from the teenage years when that same friend and I would write each other during our summers apart while we were in camp or on teen tours. They brought on a sense of nostalgia, not just from the experiences we wrote about (usually having to do with boys), but also for a time when letter writing was one of the more preferred form of media.

Like I said, I do like to write letters these days using email. But it isn’t the same as the anticipation of holding an envelope in your hands, tearing it open in whatever neat or haphazard way, unfolding the paper, and then deciphering the handwriting—sometimes more easily than others.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of letter writing, for me, was examining the handwriting. Was it rushed scribbles or elegant script? Small block letters or bubble letters with hearts as the dot above each letter “i”? Are there smiley faces and miniature pictures—emojis before there were emojis? How much time and detail did the sender put into their note? There’s so much to be read into a handwritten letter. Much more so than with emails or text messages.

Sometimes, when I’m having one of those long text conversations, I do decide to change it up and make an actual phone call. I’ll usually say something along the lines of, “Hey, there’s this live audio feature on my cell phone that’s really cool!!” It’s like I have forgotten that there was a time before texting and scheduled FaceTime calls, and even a time before cell phones when not only did I sometimes get an unscheduled call, but that oftentimes upon hearing the phone ring I didn’t even know who would be on the other end of the line. You know, that time when Caller ID was the coolest innovation around.

And so, I think, wouldn’t it be fun, for just a little while anyway, to go back to the days of the unexpected phone call or letter in the mail, and not be caught off guard? The unplanned conversation? I hope that one day communication for me will circle back to where it began, so that when my friend calls me from out of the blue, I won’t find it weird at all. And so that one day I might even be encouraged to pick up the phone—or put pen to paper—myself.

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at www.refaenu.org. You also can email dena@refaenu.org with any questions or comments.
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