THE BLOG
05/02/2013 08:10 am ET | Updated Jul 02, 2013

On The Fly: Breaking Up With Your Phone Number

Alamy

Years ago, I heeded the advice of an elder life management counselor as it related to caring for my aging dad:

First, I moved Dad to an apartment one mile away from where I lived. At a mile, it was close enough for me to get there in under three minutes and far enough for him not to be able to walk over unannounced.

Then I installed a second telephone line in my house to which only he had the number. If the red phone rang (and yes, the phone was actually red), I knew he was on the other end and I could decide whether to pick it up or not. This was before Caller ID and, as the elder life management counselor astutely observed, I needed a way to control Dad's access to me on the days when he called 50+ times. Call it self-preservation.

Fast-forward 25 years and now there's an app for that. Actually there are several apps for that, but we want to give a hat-tip to the principals of Burner.com for convincing us that what's really going on is nothing short of a a sweeping cultural change in our relationship with our phone numbers.

Yes, we have a relationship with our phone numbers. We are engaged in an unrealistic romance with them where we boast of our fidelity to them and then abuse them with complete disrespect. Heck, we are so attached to them that we even use them to define ourselves. If you are a New Yorker with a 212 number or have a 310 area code in Los Angeles, you know precisely what I mean.

Midlifers, said Greg Cohn, co-founder of Burner.com, are especially attached to their phone numbers. We empower them with the same level of importance as our Social Security and credit card numbers and like to say things like, "I've had the same number for 30 years."

But we don't treat them with the same respect as the other important numbers in our life. No, not hardly. Would you post your ATM PIN number or even your Twitter password on Facebook or LinkedIn? Of course not; but that's precisely what we do to our phone numbers.

We stupidly give out our phone numbers to anyone and everyone who asks for them and then wonder why our dinners are interrupted every night by calls from people wanting to clean our carpets and sell us timeshares. We print up business cards with our cell numbers to impress people with how accessible we are and then complain when business calls come in on Saturday nights. We scribble our phone numbers on cocktail napkins after the third martini and then the next morning hope we were drunk enough to at least transpose a digit or two.

Which leads to the cosmic change we are undergoing as a society: We are on our way to accepting that not everyone is entitled to call us when they want to. Those long-held, much-treasured phone numbers that we claimed special status for despite our abuse? They are so yesterday.

What Burner.com does is allow you to create a temporary number for a specific purpose. You can give it to a select person or group of people -- the students in your class, people responding to your piano-for-sale ad on Craigslist, the tenants in the building you manage -- and you can keep it for as long as you like, paying for it as long as you want to keep it.

I, personally, would like to give Burner number to everyone I meet in the course of doing my job; the line between my real and virtual friends long ago blurred on Facebook. Why must everyone who I interview for a story also get my cell number? I also wouldn't have minded having a Burner number when my husband went out car-shopping recently; those pesky salespeople have been hounding us with calls even though he made it clear that he was "just looking." A single woman in the office thinks a Burner number would be perfect for handing out to guys she meets in her online dating exploits. I certainly could have used it at a recent college career day; the number of students who want Huffington Post internships far exceeds the number of internships we have -- no matter how many times they call me. And a burner number certainly would have worked for taking care of Dad.

"It gives you control over who you want to have access to you," said Cohn.

Put that way, I get it. I also admit that my initial reaction was that it felt icky. Isn't it deceitful to meet a woman in a bar and give her a fake number? And then what? After you've been dating awhile and she passes some kind of longevity test, you casually say something like "Oh, you're a keeper, so here's my real number"? Doesn't that start things out on the wrong foot -- one weighed down forever with the taint of suspicion and distrust?

Cohn and his partner say the problem is in my perception. I've empowered my original phone number as the "real" one and everything after that is "fake." Your temporary phone number isn't a "fake," Cohn says. "It's just a temporary number."

I'm working my head around this guys; it just may take a while. After all, I am a former-212 and everyone knows ex-New Yorkers only pretend to like change.

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