The tyranny of beeping

A lot of people are finding they are more sensitive to noise after fifteen months of various lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic, but my irritation with beeping goes back further.

My phone has been on silent permanently for the past three years. My friend Kevin gave me the idea back in 2018. As a poet, playwright and screenwriter, it seemed to me that Kevin was always ‘on’, as I had been when I was a freelancer, so I didn’t know how he managed to have his phone on silent and still have a successful career.

When I was working in a particularly demanding sports environment, my phone could start going at 8am (“The pitch is frozen, so we have to call off the game”) and I could still be taking calls at 10pm (“We don’t have a referee for the under-18s game tomorrow. Can you find one?”).

That demanding environment was created by the CEO, who would call me when I was on holiday, demanding information when I was standing on a pier on the Isle of Skye, and when I was on a rooftop in Barcelona. Those two incidents bothered me in particular, as it was at the end of a very difficult few months where I had worked the hardest I’ve ever worked, and put in more hours than was healthy (and probably legal), and I needed a proper break.

Why did I answer? Because I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t. I had been shouted at, humiliated in front of others, blamed for things that had nothing to do with me, and ultimately threatened with losing my job. So I felt I had to answer, whether I was in the Hebrides or Catalunya or not.

I was burnt-out after that job, and I stopped freelancing when I went into a fulltime job in 2018, with regular office hours and clear work-life boundaries. My work phone was left in my work bag when I went home at the end of the day, and I put my own phone on silent. I had asked Kev, when he told me about his non-ringing phone, why he wasn’t scared he’d miss a call. If he was expecting an important call, he would leave his phone on vibrate and he could hear that, and if not, and he missed a call, he would just phone someone back. And that’s what I’ve done for the past three years, and it has been one of the best decisions I have made.

I now no longer feel I am at the beck and (literal) call of all and sundry. I get to decide when I take calls, and if I don’t want to take a work call after 5pm, then I don’t. There is a clear stopping point – a boundary – of work.

Beeping, ringing, pinging – they all signal someone wanting something from us, and that we’re always ‘on’. Working from home during the pandemic has meant the boundary between work and home has blurred, if not been erased entirely for some.

With face-to-face communication at an absolute minimum, that beeping has almost taken over our lives. Putting your phone on silent (or switching it off completely, as I did for four days over the Easter weekend) isn’t possible for everyone, but reducing the hours you are ‘on’, that you can be ‘got at’, can really help rebuild those boundaries that have been eroded by working from home.

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