My Thoughts About One of My Favorite Places--Northeastern Indiana's Amish Country

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Phone Shanties

It used to be that to communicate with my Amish friends, I’d have to write a letter.  And if my Amish friends needed to make a phone call, they would walk or ride a bike to the diner down the road.  But these days, phones are working their way into the Amish community—via phone shanties.

A phone shanty is a little building out by the road containing a phone which four or five families share.  Each family has a different voice mail extension, so this is what you hear:  “For Alvin Troyer, press 1.  For Merle Beachy, press 2.  For Noah Miller, press 3.  For Jacob Bontrager, press 4.”

When I phone my Amish friends, I leave a voice message.  They usually check their voice mail twice a day.  It’s still a strange thing to me to hear my cell phone ringing and see their name on the caller ID!  But it does make it much easier to plan things than in the old days, particularly since my husband and I sometimes head for Amish Indiana on short notice.

Some businesses have phone shanties closer to the building.  When you see print ads for Amish businesses in tourism brochures or The People’s Exchange, a phone number is often listed, but normally it will say “VM” next to the number—“voice mail.”  Some Amish businesses are permitted to have cell phones, such as builders or contractors.  And Amish young people ages 16 upwards who are in their “running around years” and have not yet joined the church might have cell phones.

Recently I asked my Amish friend Ruth how things are going with the phone shanties, and Amish phone usage in general.  She said that they share a phone shanty with three other families, and lately it’s been a struggle.  She will walk or ride her bike to the phone shanty and sometimes have to wait an hour for her turn.  Recently she had to make three trips to the shanty in one afternoon before it was free.  She said they are going to ask their bishop if they can split it up and have two phone shanties, one for just their home and the home next door.

Why are phone shanties allowed, but phones inside homes are not?  The long and short of it is, they want to discourage faceless electronic socializing rather than actual human contact.  They also frown on having endless hours frittered away, socializing on the phone.  (Not unlike what I’ve heard “English” parents say.)  They believe in doing your work when it’s time to do your work, and then when work is done, spending lots of time in social activities and fellowship—face to face and in person.  

I remarked to my friend that recently I’ve seen what I call “phone shanty creep”—the shanties seem to be moving farther up the lane and closer to the homes and businesses.  She agreed with that, and said that the local bishop has said that the shanty can be partially up the lane, but not close enough that you can hear it ring from inside the house.

What a slippery slope keeping modern technology at bay can be!  A 500-year-old religious and cultural group, trying to maintain their identity as a "separate people" while not creating undue hardship on their members...  But as I've said before, it's not my place to defend the Amish or try to explain their choices.  I'm glad they are as accepting of my contradictions as I try to be of theirs. 

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