Areas of Unrest
1 September 1999 - The Telephone: Friend or Foe?
My birthday is coming up on Saturday, but I'm leaving for Alaska tomorrow evening, so this is the last entry I will write before I turn 41. Which should be an excuse for something dramatic, but what I really want to write about is the telephone.
I have very mixed feelings about telephones. For one thing, I startle easily and the ring of a phone often makes me jump, though it's not quite as bad as a knock on the door.
For another, I always think I sound like an idiot when I answer the phone. It's not so bad at home, because I can just say "hello" but I went through years of anxiety at work before I came up with a way of answering the phone that I was reasonably happy with. (The issue is whether or not you say your name and/or the company's name and if you do say your name whether you say your full name or just your last name or use a title. And then you have to decide if saying your name means you say just your name or if you also have to say "hello" or "good afternoon" and what if you say "good morning" when it's afternoon and the caller thinks you are a flake?) The biggest problem at home is that my number used to be the number for a nursery (as in plants, not children) and I get a lot of wrong numbers for them and I always have to fight the desire to make up things about tropical plants instead of just telling the caller they have a wrong number.
In my undergraduate days, I worked desk in the dorm I lived in. This job consisted largely of answering the phone. The way things worked back then was that there was an internal campus telephone system (dormline) that was not directly dialable from outside. There was a number people could call and ask for the dormline extension, but usually they'd call the dorm desk because I could transfer them if the person they were calling was in and take a message otherwise. I used to deliberately sign up to work early Sunday morning because that was the time the phone was least likely to ring. In retrospect, this was probably not the ideal job for me. It did serve to remind me that I was in college so I wouldn't have to answer phones for the rest of my life. (Incidentally, I have held an even worse job. When I was a teenager, I did piecework for a factory that produced things to be sold in gumball machines. Well, not gumball machines per se, because they didn't sell gumballs, but the same sort of vending machines. I stuffed Gumbies into little plastic containers. We brought home bags of Gumby and Poky and gumby fish and something else that I don't remember and, when we brought back the filled plastic bubbles, we were paid something like a penny or two each. We also got to keep the defective Gumbies and I always had a bunch of three-legged Pokies and weird multi-colored gumby fish and so on. But that has nothing to do with telephones.)
The worst time I went through answering telephones was in grad school. There were two grad student offices, seven people each, which shared one telephone. Over the years, there were never more than two other people in those offices who were native speakers of English. Typically, they were foreign students whose stay-at-home wives called them twelve times a day. So the odds were high that whoever answered the phone got a rapid barrage of household crisis in a language other than English. I'd try to look very busy whenever the phone rang, pretending I was so absorbed in my work that I didn't even hear it. The problem only went away when the telephone was stolen. I bought a $5 phone at the drugstore and kept it in my desk to plug in when I wanted to make a call. To this day, I hate answering another person's phone.
Except that making calls is even worse than answering them, because how the person answers the phone determines what you are supposed to say and throws me off if it isn't what I expected. I really hate it if I call and a secretary answers and says "Dr. Frankenstein's office" and I have to ask "is he in?" and then know that the secretary will mangle my name and, when he does come on the line, he won't be prepared because he won't know who I am. Sometimes I call people when I'm pretty sure they won't be in because I'd rather leave a message and have them get all flustered when they call me back.
I don't think I need to even mention the horrors of menu options, being put on hold, and other modern forms of phone death.
When it comes to making personal calls, I can also go through this whole mental drama about whether or not the person I'm calling wants to talk to me. If a machine answers, is it because they're really out or are they screening their calls and avoiding me? (I will never forgive my brother for getting caller-id, not so much because I think he'd screen me out, but because he's made me aware of how easy it is for someone else to.) And then there are friends who have their children answer the phone, whether or not said children have been taught how to do so politely. (To be fair, I spent much of my childhood answering my parents' phone by saying "hello, who is it?" until I got tired of being lectured about there being such a thing as being too direct.) At least the people who insist on putting their pets on the phone to greet me haven't taught their pets to pick up the receiver. Yet.
As a final argument on the "phones are my enemy" side, I am amazingly compulsive about the handset being hung up the right way. It completely unnerves me if I see a telephone that has the squiggly handset cord crossing over the dial/pushbutton area and I will break off conversations and walk across a room to fix this. Most of the things I'm compulsive about are reasonably inconspicuous, but this one is harder to pass for normal over. Fortunately, most office phones these days are designed so you have to put the handset on the cradle the right way. My phones at home are all trim-line style ones so I'm not at the mercy of other people not knowing how to do things correctly. So, overall, this comes up less than it used to.
Despite all this, I actually like talking on the telephone and, in times of extreme emotion, I call up pretty much everybody I know and, once I've gotten through the initiation of the call, can chatter happily for hours. (Or unhappily, depending on what triggered the telephone binge.)
And, then, there are the times I am reminded of the true miracle that the telephone is. My friend, John, was starting a new job today and I knew he was nervous about it. I could have sent email - but a phone call has a lot more impact. So, yesterday I steeled myself to the task and called. I wrestled with time zone differences, furiously counting on my fingers to figure out what the implications of daylight savings time were, before discovering that there are web pages that will tell you the current time in pretty much any major world city. Then it took me 45 minutes to figure out how to use my MCI calling card to call South Africa so I ended up worried that I was calling too late, but I'd committed so much effort, I had to go through with it. (There were two problems, by the way. The first was that I kept forgetting what the number to access MCI Worldphone was, so I had to keep going to their web page to find it. The bigger problem was that he'd given me his number as if I were to dial it locally, so there was an extraneous zero in front. Had MCI had a list of city codes on their page, I might have been saved at least a half hour of this agony, but it worked in the end. It also would have helped a lot if the error message was something like "maybe you've dialed an extra zero" instead of "your party cannot be reached at the current time.")
After all that, he was home, my timing was perfect, he was pleased that I cared enough to call. Email may be fine but it is no substitute for hearing a person's voice. My tongue, my lips, my lungs, my vocal chords compress the air in an office in El Segundo, California. A-to-D converters turn that compressed air into electronic signals, switching systems send those signals over twisted copper wires and/or fiber optic cables to the other side of the planet and my voice emerges from a piece of plastic in Cape Town. All of it automated now, where it took people making those cable connections just a few years ago.
Not that the people in the loop were all that bad a thing. My parents took their first trip to Israel around 1972. My father looked in the phone book and called the operator and asked to talk to a cousin in Petah Tiqwa. He explained to the operator that this cousin had left Kovno, Lithuania in 1939 and they had no contact since. When the call finally went through, the operator joined in the excitement. "He remembers you! He remembers you!"
A word of reassurance or condolence or congratulations or just a "hello, I was thinking about you and I wanted to hear your voice". I think I can live with the telephone for all that.
But I still don't want you to hang up the handset backwards.
Copyright 1999 Miriam H. Nadel
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