Friday, April 27, 2012

Going rogue -- as in, land-line-free

My household is very seldom at the cutting edge of technology, so I assumed when we decided to drop our traditional phone line and use cell phones exclusively, we were at the back end of a trend that had already swept the country.

But as friends, relatives and business contacts aagradually became aware of the change we’d made, I discovered that this time we were closer to, if not at, the forefront of a movement. Of those individuals who had already gone home-phone-free when we did a year and a half ago, the typical demographic was young single people. We discovered it was still quite unusual for a household like ours – a suburban family of four consisting of two middle-aged adults and two school-aged children – to make what seemed to most of our cohort like a radical domestic change.

And yet people were curious. It turned out to be one of those things that a lot of adults were considering, even if they couldn’t quite persuade themselves it was a good idea.

For us, it’s been great. First of all, as with any new or unlisted phone number, our numbers were unknown to telemarketers, political parties, alumni groups and charities, and it has remained that way in the ensuing year and a half, so we get phone calls only from people who have a reason to know our number, either because we gave it to them directly or filled out paperwork they had access to or someone else we know gave it to them.

It also means the only people who call me are people who specifically want to talk to me, and the same is true for my husband. We’re no longer stuck making small talk with each other’s co-workers, college friends or poker buddies just because we happened to be the one standing closest to the phone when it rang.

Admittedly, this aspect also has a downside: there’s an intrinsic social value to some of those unintentional conversations. These days I almost never talk to my mother-in-law on the phone unless she’s deliberately trying to reach me to make plans or to ask me about a family event – most of the time, she calls my husband directly, and I miss the chit-chat we used to have before I put him on the phone.

Still, it saves a lot of time. No longer do I have to field calls from the parents of the kids on the baseball team my husband coaches. Either they reach him directly or they leave a message on his voicemail.

I also really like the privacy aspect of it. It is often argued that privacy is a casualty of modern-day society, and yet I like the fact that people who call me have no way of knowing where I am. When I answer my cell phone, I might be in my kitchen, I might be at the beach, I might be in a doctor’s waiting room, I might be at the shopping mall. This is useful personally but also professionally. Last year when I went to Colorado for a week, I didn’t even tell my editors; I didn’t want them to avoid giving me assignments just because I was out of town. As it happened, my editor did call while I was away to see if I could do a story that didn’t require on-the-spot coverage, and I was happy to take it on, because I often welcome the opportunity to earn some income while I’m traveling. If she had known I was away from home for the week, she probably wouldn’t have bothered to call me about the story.

The downsides have mostly to do with the overlap between being an individual and being part of a family. My 13-year-old has his own phone, but my 9-year-old doesn’t, and when her friends want to make plans, they use my number. This is fine if we’re all at home together but can be inconvenient if I’m out of town and she’s at home. I once called my husband while I was in Chicago to tell him that the neighbor down the street wanted to know if Holly could come over to play. It becomes a fairly inefficient use of communication at that point.

Going land-line free is also probably not a good idea for parents who often have babysitters in the house. In an emergency, you don’t want to have to rely on someone else having their phone close at hand.

The other caveat I mention when people ask about the arrangement is that if you’re accustomed to a household in which three or four different extensions ring each time you get a phone call, you have to remember that cell phones are one unit per number. That means if you leave your phone downstairs and you go upstairs, you won’t be able to answer the phone if it rings. And with consideration to extreme emergencies such as fires, you have to remember to bring your phone to the bedroom with you at night.

It’s worked out well for us, though. I’m not someone who gets inundated with phone calls, and I like knowing that if there’s information I need, it will reach me whether I’m home or away. Considering how many people have asked me about the arrangement, I really do believe it’s the wave of the future. And in this day and age, anything that gives an increased, rather than decreased, sense of privacy is worth at least a little bit of consideration.

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