17 May 2021
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Did the advent of the telephone depersonalise communications?

Christopher Joye
21 February 2011

I wonder whether the development of the telephone paradoxically depersonalised communications. One thing you are struck by when you read history from the pre-telephone days is how intimate and personal the correspondence was.

Men writing to each other often did so in a manner that would be described in sensual or homophobic terms today despite our purportedly more liberal society.

This is a conundrum of sorts. On the one hand, society in, say, the 1920s was vastly more conservative than what we take for granted today. On the other, people seemed far more comfortable expressing deeply personal feelings for one another. And for some reason this was especially true of men.

I have a simple explanation: a century or so ago people corresponded by letter. Regularly and at considerable length. They had much more time to reflect on what they wanted to say, and knew that it would likely not be read by their counterparty for days or weeks.

Paradoxically, I would venture that this engenders a great deal more intensity and intimacy than is permitted when you communicate directly with someone face to face, or telephonically. It is, for instance, much easier to write ‘I love you’ on a piece of paper than offering up that message in person.

The good news is that the emergence of the Internet has, in my opinion, yielded a renaissance of sorts for the written word. I remember when I first started bashing out emails how they would often be windy and detailed. I would be communicating feelings to another that I would not ordinarily transmit. The revolution had begun.

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