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, land-line 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 several families might share.  Each family (or young person) 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 a few times a day and call me back.  It’s still a strange thing to me to hear my cell phone and see their name on the caller ID!  But it does make it much easier to plan things than in the old days.

Some businesses have phone shanties closer to the building.  When you see print ads for Amish retail 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 for business, especially builders or other contractors who are “out and about” during the day.  And Amish young people ages 16 and upwards who are in their “running around years” (rumspringa) and have not yet joined the church might have cell phones.

Why are phone shanties allowed, but phones inside homes are not?  The long and short of it is, the Amish want to discourage faceless electronic communication rather than actual human contact.  They also frown on having endless hours frittered away socializing over the phone.  (Not unlike what I’ve heard “English” parents say!)  Their phones are for necessary calls, so they keep them at arm’s length…  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 their 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 theology.  I’m glad they are as accepting of my contradictions as I try to be of theirs! 

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