Opening up our hearts – and our Rolodexes

The Monitor's language columnist ponders how some brand names linger on as figures of speech, even as new technologies succeed them.

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On the drive back into the city after a networking meeting, my friend and I critiqued the session. A useful evening, overall, we concurred. But she took issue with the speaker's reference to a Rolodex.

It's very helpful, he had said, when a colleague or client can give you a referral, or make an introduction, to someone who could use your services. But best of all is when a trusted source will sit down and "open their Rolodex for you."

Great idea, but does anybody use a Rolodex anymore? my friend mused. "The technology has moved on." Indeed, some people have no business cards at all. When they meet someone new, they just send that person an e-mail with their contact details, and voilà, that's it.

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Still, I understood why the speaker expressed himself the way he did. Why do terms like that linger on as figures of speech?

In this case, no single new technology or device has come in to fulfill what the wonks call the contact management function the way "iPod" has taken over for "Walkman." (I know, by the way, that I'm throwing around some trademarked brand names. They're often best avoided, but sometimes provide a bit of concrete detail that makes them useful. This is one of those cases.)

Another reason "Rolodex" lives on is that many devices do so many things that they can't serve as an indicator of how well connected someone is. "His smart phone is really smart" just doesn't say the same thing as "He has a great Rolodex."

But there's more to it than that.

The ancient Sumerians kept track of their contacts on little clay tablets strung together on strips of camel hide. The tablets were durable, but hard to update when someone moved or had a new phone number. No, I just made that up.

Actually, a self-taught Danish engineer named Hildaur Neilson invented the Rolodex in 1956. However modern and efficient he thought it, a Rolodex is a very human and idiosyncratic thing. The really good ones are always a bit messy, the way a much-studied book has smudges and doodles in the margin. Some cards will have notations by hand; some will have business cards stapled to them.

The card for someone the owner has known for a long time may have several phone numbers on it crossed out and replaced in succession. Some cards will have the numbers not only for office and home but maybe even for the in-laws' summer cottage. This kind of "contact manager" is the artifact of a handmade life.

"What can I do for you? Come on in, pull up a chair, and let's flip through this thing and see who's here that you should talk to."

That's the dialogue that goes with "He has a great Rolodex."

By contrast, my cellphone contains the numbers of junk callers forwarded from my landline. And if my fingers stumble on the keys as I compose an e-mail, the computer may suggest a name I didn't even know was in my system.

Can we remember a time when that kind of "pull up a chair" mutual support was more needed? So many people are looking for new jobs or more clients or lower-cost suppliers or someone to take their house off their hands. Whether it's the economy, or my own social networking beginning to hit critical mass, it seems I've been hearing from all sorts of people lately. For all I know, the woman I remember (dimly) as Miss Barbara from nursery school may be trying to reach me via LinkedIn.

That's not a complaint, I hasten to add – far from it. It's a reminder of the value of maintaining the Rolodex of the heart.

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