Monday, February 17, 2014

I Never Called Her Back: My Horrendous and Painful Social Life Before Technology

The true story I am going to share here was so embarrassing to me when it happened that I've since blocked from memory the main character's name.

She's Jennifer, or Meghan, or Sarah. Was it Sarah? It may have been Sarah, some common female name anyway.

Making Friends
Sarah and I were acquaintances in college. We were both English literature students, the kind who were sharp and bright and spoke up in class, but introverted in social situations. We had a few classes together and were friendly, but never became friends.

She was blonde, had the slightest lisp, and was thick like a volleyball player. I thought she was confident, smart, pretty. I may have had a little crush on her.

Sarah's boyfriend, she told me one day, was from Long Island like I was, and they were headed down to visit his parents that summer. I liked Sarah. I needed more friends. And I managed to put on my big girl balls when I gave her my mother's phone number and suggested we hang out while they were on Long Island. It was fairly hard for me to be so forward in person like that.

Crucially to the story: It was 1999 or 2000. Neither of us had a mobile phone. Hardly anyone in the U.S. did at that time.

At school, I had email, but my mother didn't have a computer at her house. Phone was the only way we could get in touch with one another.

She Called!
In late June or early July, Sarah called while I was out. She left a message on the machine saying she was in town and left the phone number at her boyfriend's parents house where they were staying.

But I couldn't call her back.

My mother hadn't paid her phone bill in months. If you didn't pay your phone bill in the 1990s, the phone company didn't cut you off completely, because having a phone was considered a necessary utility. I don't know if that's still the case today. So when you didn't pay your bill, the phone company wouldn't cut you off completely. First, they would only cut your ability to make outbound calls. You could still receive inbound calls and dial emergency numbers. At some point, they would cut off inbound calls, too, but you could always dial 911.

I was quite versed in the ins and outs of not paying the phone bill. It happened all the time in my family's house when I was in high school. I'd have to tell my friends, "Call me, and if I'm not home, call me again in a little bit because I can't call you."

In high school, it was embarrassing, but all my friends knew my family was poor. Sarah, on the other hand, didn't know we were poor. Sarah didn't know that I literally could not call her back. (It never crossed my mind to tell her as much when I gave her the phone number because I thought the bill had been paid. Going home to visit was always full of unpredictable moments. Sometimes things went smoothly, and other times it was the same old shit.)

In theory, I could have called Sarah back two days later during my next shift working at a nearby deli, but I never used the deli phone for personal calls, as a matter of pride. Plus, I was afraid that if I didn't call Sarah back for two days, and then did from an unknown number with this zany excuse that the home phone was cut off from making outbound calls only... well, I thought for sure she'd think I was crazy and a liar.

She never called back. I never called her. I regretted it. I felt ashamed. We never saw each other again.

Phone Hatred
To this day, I hate the telephone. It's by far the least used function on my "phone."

All the other ways I have to get in touch with people—text-messaging, email, Twitter, Facebook, Skype—are a complete relief. They've changed my social life dramatically. They've empowered me to be me because of the nature of how they work.

I've talked before about the love-hate relationship people have with email, and shared my personal "love" side of email. When email came into my life, it gave me a way to interact with people in a way that was a hundred times more comfortable for me than phone or face-to-face conversations. I'm a writer, and I need time to think about my words. I'm so much more confident when I can pause and think through what I want to say. On the receiving end, I like that I have time to read and re-read someone's words, figure out what they meant, consider my emotional response before putting down an actual response.

Through all these other means of communication, I am more fearless in how I connect with people. I write what I have to say without embarrassment. It has backfired, sure, when I put too much of myself out there on the page and scare people off (it's happened only a handful of times, but it's happened). On the whole, though, it's transformed my ability to have a social life.

Technology changes our lives in ways we often don't expect. For me, the ability to "talk" to people, asynchronously, when I have time to think about what I want to say or how I will respond, has 100 percent enabled a social life that I might not have otherwise had.


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