“We can’t talk about this on the phone”

I ran across a variant on this phrase again last night, in The Case of the Queenly Contestant by Erle Stanley Gardner. (Cold night, warm house, drowsy, tired, a Perry Mason mystery to complete my contentment.) Perry M had something important to tell a client. He needed to see her, even though he had her phone number and the lines were not tapped — this point was mentioned specifically. The news was not tragic, just important.

Somewhere in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, from the 1970s, Roy Neary is having an anguished conversation with his wife. “We can’t talk about this on the phone!” he cries.

There are many other examples, none of which I can recall exactly, but the idea that you don’t discuss important things on the telephone seemed to once be a given: a basic truth no one questioned.

Sometimes people need to be together to give and receive comfort or share joy, but something else was going on. Phone talk was chatter; face-to-face talk was the real deal, the stuff of life.

Why was that?

Was there something faintly troubling about phone conversation? A sense of this is not how it is supposed to be? 

There is a difference between hearing music at home, even on a spectacular sound system, and hearing it performed live. If you don’t think so, you have never heard music performed live. It is not the same music. Perhaps a similar awareness was the basis of the belief about phones.

Now, phones are secondary means of communication and computers are primary. The day of the land line is passing, I think.  But this question still remains, in fact is more relevant than ever:

What is gained and what is lost when you talk at a distance?

When I first learned how to talk on the Internet back in the 1990s (yes, it is a skill), the thing I compared it to was learning how to move around in zero gravity. At first you overdid things. You did not end up where you intended to go. Small gestures produced big results. Eventually, you figure out how to say what you intended to say.

What about people who spend large parts of the day typing messages to one another? Is is very strange to come back to earth? Part of being there for real is reading faces, gestures, body language, and intonations of speech. Do these abilities get less sharp as the zero-gravity abilities get more sharp?

I am not writing this blog to provide answers. But when I came across the line in The Case of the Queenly Contestant about not talking about important things on the phone, I realized that I haven’t heard anybody say this in a long time.