“Telephone” is a party game, but also a tremendous game changer in romance in the last one hundred years. Although the core issues involved in committing to another person have remained pretty much the same over millennia, the details of courtship have varied dramatically just in the last century based on the changing technology of telecommunications. You think this does not matter? Imagine hoping for some word from your beloved, and not receiving it. Prior to the invention of the telephone, all messages were hand delivered in one way or another, and that meant they were seldom private. Invitations to parties, love letters, flowers whose selections were coded messages, telegrams advising of a lover’s return from far away, and even secret notes urging an elopement were all delivered by means of some person. This meant a suitor might have to approach a parent directly for permission to speak to, invite out, or even hand a gift to a girl he admired. It also meant that there were many possibilities that a lover’s message could be intercepted, even if it was hidden in a secret spot such as a hole in a tree. Hopeful girls “haunted the mailbox” awaiting love letters, but managing parents determined to end an unsuitable relationship might confiscate such missives first and pretend nothing arrived. They also turned away suitors at the door and refused gift deliveries. The contents of a telegram would usually be handed directly to the head of the household, not the intended recipient. Little wonder that romances set in the long ago past usually involve group social events as first meetings, then clandestine notes carried by servants and delivered secretly, and then trysts set up to outwit the chaperonage of family or friends.
The advent of the telephone gave lovers more direct communication some of the time, and posed different courtship challenges. First the girl being called needed permission to accept a phone call, usually from a parent who answered and wanted to know exactly who was calling. Early phones often were party lines, and some people snooped on their neighbors for entertainment, so confiding anything over the phone was similar to shouting it in a public square. And the first phones in most houses were located in hallways or kitchens where every member of the household could overhear everything. Such circumstances were hardly conducive to long, intimate phone calls. The advent in 1959 of the “princess phone” was a direct effort by the phone company (then a national monopoly) to get consumers to pay for additional extensions in every home by giving the girl of the house her very own phone. It worked, but those extensions weren’t really private from the family; a disapproving parent could and did pick up another telephone extension elsewhere in the house and listen in or tell the young people to say goodnight.
Having the option of talking by phone to a lover also created a bizarre misery, in which a girl waited by the phone for hours or days, hoping a certain boy would call. Girls would put their lives on hold (ironically, a phone term), refusing all other social opportunities, while they waited in vain for some special boy to call—whether he’d promised to or not. The boy might go on with his life and eventually call, or he might not, and either way the girl would end up furious and/or deflated because she’d sat around, lovelorn, for hours and hours, mentally picking apart their relationship and her own lack of worthiness to be loved. The phone was both the source of joy if he called and the enemy if it did not ring.
Things got a little more equal when phone answering machines, previously only for offices, began to be used in homes. They made it possible to leave a romantic message, and also possible for a girl to get mad at a boy who did not call and leave one yet meanwhile she could still go on with her life. But once again, mostly those were not private messages, since many answering machines merely put the caller on one-way speaker phone while recording. With one machine usually serving for an entire household, leaving kissyface-type messages that a girl’s whole family might hear or her parents could play back was definitely not recommended. On the other hand, answering machines were great for screening calls from boys a girl did not want to date, or from a lover she was mad at. The invention of Caller ID made it even more possible for angry or broken up lovers to duck each others’ calls. It also led to a lot of “Aren’t you going to pick up the phone?” questions from annoyed family members or roommates.
At the same time, people were using pagers, which clipped to a belt and notified the pager wearer that someone wanted them to call. Pager numbers were not accessible as public phone numbers and were only given out to selected people, but once a breakup occurred, that could be a problem. Whether the person who was paged found a public phone and called back was entirely their choice, but constantly buzzing pagers were a nuisance and not under the recipient’s control, and unwanted callers could call from unrecognized phone numbers.
When e-mail began to substitute for phone calls, finally, lovers could be alone—unless someone else could read their e-mails, which often happened with a computer shared by family members. And the freedom to directly contact a loved one or former lover sometimes led to unwise late-night multiple e-mails, especially if the man or woman was drunk and unhappy. Instant messaging appeared and encouraged computer users to mimic being on the phone, but it required both people to sign on, so it was not an easy conduit for romantic strife.
Then cell phones completely eradicated waiting at home for a phone call, or finding a pay phone to answer a page, or, eventually, once they became smartphones, needing to check one’s home computer for any e-mails. Texting made it possible to silently send and receive phone messages, giving lovers more privacy than ever before. Sexting spread visual sexual content, wanted or unwanted, while social media such as Facebook gave lovers alternate contact points to connect via phone either publicly or privately, with all the threats inherent in the private being made public or in the public interfering with the private.
Today everybody is connected unless they don’t want to be. Lady Gaga’s hit song (sung with Beyoncé), “Telephone,” makes it clear that much of the power of the telephone has switched from who calls to who receives the call. There are no intermediaries, no messengers intercepted or family members to interfere, and the person being called has the sole option to pick up or not. Only if the phone owner leaves the phone and its ringer on at all times can the person who phones regain any power over the one receiving the call. You can drunk dial your ex at 3 AM and leave a ranting message, but your ex does not have to even know you did it until checking the phone the next day. The ex might delete the message without listening to a word of it.
And the telephone game is still changing. Skype has brought ringing phone noises to computers. If it’s the guy you just broke off with calling, that’s irritating and if you aren’t quick to choose your option, you’re on camera, too. Yikes.