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For whom the phone rings

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
For whom the phone rings

I’ve never forgotten what my favorite Home Ec teacher once said about manners. She told us that good manners are always based on being considerate of others. My favorite Sunday School teacher said that treating others the way we would like to be treated ourselves implied that we should do what is right for ourselves as well. The poet, John Donne, famously wrote, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” 

These words ring in my mind when I remember a beautiful evening we once spent in an expensive restaurant in Tampa, Florida. When my husband retired, he was asked to turn over his customers to the young saleswoman, who was to take his place. His most important and lucrative account was with a firm in Tampa, so he invited me to travel with him and the saleswoman, whom I will call Lenny, to meet the client and his wife for dinner.

I was included because I already knew the couple. My husband, a great believer in “relationship selling,” often invited clients to stay at our home when they were in Atlanta. Because we had guests coming in and out constantly, our neighbors began to refer to our house as The Curtis Hotel. Through the years, we came to know the couple not merely as customers but as friends.

We had just ordered our meals when Lenny pulled out her cell phone. While waiting for our meals to arrive was an opportune time for table talk. We had hoped to help Lenny get to know our old friends, so were disappointed when she began a lengthy, insensitive and personal telephone conversation with her husband instead. 

“Oh honey, I’m just so sorry you aren’t here with me. I just miss you SO much!”  (She had been away for four hours.) “Did you remember to bring the mail in? I left a casserole for you in the fridge.” And so on and on, she talked until the waiter returned with our plates, and after sending several, sloppy kisses over the phone, she finally put it down.

The evening was a disaster because the customers felt ignored even though we tried to put a good face on the situation. The clients moved their business to a competing company, which did not surprise us, nor did they send us their usual Christmas card that year.

No one likes being ignored, and cell phones are far too often the uninvited guests at tables both at home and in other places. Our grandchildren know that if Grandma and Grandpa invite them to dinner, whether at home or in a restaurant, the cell phones will have to wait until they leave. Otherwise, I seriously worry that they will lose their ability to carry on a face to face conversation with other people, and that they will miss the opportunity to hear real stories about real life from relatives and friends gathered around the same table.

Scientists are also worried about the effects of too much screen time on our health. We now get our news, movies, conversations, photos, and reading material from looking at screens. Scientists have noted that people tend to remember what we read on a paper surface better than what we have read on a screen. (I’m assuming that constant light shining into our eyes may be irritating just enough to make it harder to focus on what we are reading.)

The University of Connecticut’s School of Medicine is also concerned with the effects of too much screen time on our health. It has founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. It may sound ridiculous to say that people are addicted to their phones, but research reveals that the average American spends four hours a day staring at their smart phone and keeps it within arm’s reach every day.

Smart phones are an invaluable tool for people whose work requires them to use phone contact frequently, and they may not have the luxury of spending time away from them, but it can be dangerous if they don’t.

When the phone rings, we feel an obligation to pick it up, and if we don’t, we feel stressed. Stress, however slight, prompts our bodies to produce cortisol, our fight-or flight hormone. It can trigger spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, which is good if we really are in danger, but not good when we experience it frequently every day for no reason except the phone is ringing. Constantly elevated cortisol levels increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, obesity and many other serious health problems.

Our grandson, Michael, came over recently to borrow my old car, because his had been totaled. “Honest, Grandma, I wasn’t texting or even talking on my cell phone. It was just lying on the seat beside me, and when it rang, I automatically turned my head to look at it. Just as I did, the car in front of me braked suddenly, and I plowed right into it. Thanks to my airbag, I’m O.K. but I’ll have to look for a new car now.”

I reminded him that people will leave a message if necessary. Not answering a phone won’t kill you but answering it too often might. “Don’t let the bell toll for thee, Michael.” For that, I got a blank look, of course. 

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