When phone calls and emails go unreturned, is it such a bad thing?

As many people know there has been a raging debate on the internet over a column by Nick Bilton that lashes out against people who leave voice mails or send emails that simply say thank you. (I’d be happy to put a personal moratorium on that practice if I didn’t worry that someone would be offended by my lack of gratitude–which I have no way of knowing unless I know that person well enough).

In response to Bilton, a woman named Ellen D. Murphy, 62, of Portland, Ore., had scathing words, published in the New York Times:

While I applaud The Times’s apparent effort to reach out to children, you go too far when you give them a platform on your pages to express their opinions, which have all the hallmarks of immaturity and gracelessness of their age group.

[…]I feel sorry for his parents — his father, whose dozen voice mails he ignores, and his mother, who he insists communicate with him only by Twitter. This is a sociopath — and you employ him? I was left with a sincere feeling of gratitude that, at age 62, I will be dead by the time Mr. Bilton and his age cohort will be running things — and the realization that they will probably smother me with a pillow should I have the bad manners (ahem) to survive and, inefficiently, take up space in their sleek, cold, 140-character world.

Yeesh. I was so startled by Ms. Murphy's disproportionately harsh response that I had to write this comment to the Times, which I’ll repost here, because–why not?:

I’m torn because I think Mr. Bilton is a little harsh, but Ms. Murphy of Portland’s response is disproportionate. 

There’s this funny thing we do in America where on the hand we let rapid technological change shape our social experiences before we can really stop to think of the implications, while on the other we wistfully scold modern technology for dragging us away from the “meaningful communication” of yore–the letter, the telegram, and  the phone call. 

Let’s stop at the phone call. In the grand sweep of human history, the phone call is almost as new as the text message, the tweet, and the email. And Ms. Murphy is mourning its loss! Why do I get the feeling that her parents’ generation had the same contempt toward the phone as she does toward the email?

And didn’t people use to object to answering machines and voice mail on grounds pretty similar to Mr. Bilton’s?

I am guessing Mr. Bilton genuinely feels bad he can’t return all of his calls. I think because he feels bad about this, he doesn’t want to burden others with the same responsibility to get back to him. Maybe he expresses it cruelly, but I believe it comes from a well-meaning place.

I’d also hope the older generations would be pleased if the reason voicemails and emails are not returned promptly is their grandchildren are happily busy. Sometimes families who talk a lot are more insecure about this than families who don’t. The hope is they know that the love is there even when calls or emails are not.