by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Sometime ago we hosted a young couple for Friday night, Leil Shabbat, dinner. At a certain point, there was a knock on the door and the young couple was startled by the sound. I answered the door, took care of business, returned to the table and asked the couple why they jumped when they heard a knock.
They replied that no one knocks on a door anymore; it is considered impolite. The proper etiquette is to text when you have arrived and the host will come and open the door.
In a world where a knock is considered impolite, ringing a doorbell will be construed as an act of war.
There are many variations on this theme, all reflecting the reality that communication between people has been transformed in the last decade or so. Obviously, no sentient person writes letters anymore, even though hand-written letters from family or friends once served as a delightful gift in the mail and in some cases a treasure to retain. But who uses the postal service anymore for anything that is important?
Even the preferred form of modern communication shifts perceptibly from time to time. Email has been supplanted by texts which have now been replaced by WhatsApp. I’m sure WhatsApp has been switched for something else about which I have yet to be informed. And just as well. I maintain, and people try to reach me, at three email accounts, a WhatsApp, a home and study phone number with an answering machine (how dated!), an office number, and a cell phone number with voice mail and text capability. If anything, the multiplicity of contact points has rendered me less available rather than more; who can monitor, much less follow, so many instruments, and even sporadically, much less constantly?
There are unfortunate byproducts to these new rules. I have learned that it is currently gauche to pick up a phone and call someone. The unexpected telephone call is considered a gross intrusion on one’s privacy. Rather, it is more sophisticated and deemed proper today to text (or email) someone that you would like to talk to them on the phone. This has engendered three consequences. Most of the time the phone rings, the calls are from unwanted telemarketers; it can take hours to retrieve the message asking for a phone conversation, usually about something that could have been resolved in seconds had a call been placed in a timely fashion as in days of yore; and even more time is wasted clarifying the time of the call and the phone number at which the call is to be made. It is all so unnecessary – and impersonal.
What’s more unusual (by my way of thinking) is that there is tremendous reluctance for people to leave a message on the aforesaid answering machines or voice mail. Leaving a message – i.e., burdening my digital life with vocal expressions of the identity, time, and reason for the call – is apparently tacky, if not repugnant. This attempted but failed communication often produces this awkward dialogue at some later date: “I tried to call you.”
“Did you leave a message?”
“How am I supposed to know you called?”
“You are supposed to check your ‘missed calls.’”
“How am I to know that you wanted me to call you back?”
“Well, why else would I have tried to call you?!”
Where I come from – a world that no longer exists – that is not considered a genuine “I tried to call you.” Strange as it sounds, still the best way to reach me is to pick up the phone and call. Leave a message if I don’t answer. I will get back to you as quickly as possible. It’s direct, personal and effective, and has been since Alexander Graham Bell’s time, or shortly thereafter. (And let’s not even get started with people who call only to speak to the answering machine or voice mail, and sound annoyed when the phone is answered. Perhaps they should have first texted permission to call.)
Now I am learning that even emails are considered passé, to be used only to exchange jokes, stories and invitations, and replaced by informal and ultra-modern forms of communication that I don’t think I have and know that I don’t want.
What is gained by the newfangled conventions is the capability of reaching people across the globe with whom you would be unlikely to have any connection, but what is lost is real contact with real people in real time. The sound of a voice conveys depth of emotion more than any emoji can and holding a letter is genuine and enduring, and has the inherent value that an email will never have, no matter how long it is saved in a cloud. Clouds do dissipate, eventually. “The reward is proportionate to the effort,” our sages taught us (Avot 5:23). Writing and calling demand more personal engagement that emailing or texting; the latter is so ephemeral that it barely registers. The 150 or so daily emails I receive are less meaningful than the one letter I used to get. It is no wonder that with all the advantages of modern communication, and the ubiquity of our electronic personae, people are lonelier than ever and cry out more for human connection. Trying to have a meaningful discussion on a serious topic – spouses or parents and children – via text or email is an exercise in futility and frustration.
Jews are still required (for the time being and likely for the foreseeable future) to gather together every day for prayer. Virtual associations do not suffice. It is the group that forms the prayer quorum – but it is in that group that the individual truly shines and is more valued that in any other context.
We should celebrate those moments of true contact, with family, friends, and our co-religionists, as they will define our lives and be remembered more than the entire range of email addresses, internet links, social media profiles and texting numbers that we can muster, and that we often hide behind.
I am sure there are other new rules of which I am unaware that I routinely violate. No matter. It is not as if these rules are decrees of the Men of the Great Assembly. If you want to reach me, just call; don’t ask permission and don’t write. And, of course, even a better way to find me is to knock on my door. If I am home I will (probably) answer – but I do promise not to be startled or offended.