Thursday, July 07, 2005

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Hello? Is that you?

All right people, new rule. When you telephone those of us who have chosen not to enrich the phone companies by subscribing to call display, you have to identify yourself – right away. I don’t know where or how or why it started, but this habit of calling people up and then simply launching in on the conversation in the assumption that the person on the receiving end knows who you are is a recipe for disaster and has got to stop.
For instance: Phone rings.
Me: Hello?
Female caller: Hi Otte. Listen, I talked to your wife a couple of days ago, and I told her I was OK to meet her sometime this week, but now I can’t ‘cause I’ll be away. Could you let her know? Thanks. Bye. (Click… Brrrrr).
Well, I have no idea who just called, do I? One of my wife’s co-workers? The wife of a friend? One of her nieces? One of her sisters? An old school friend? It could be anybody. So now I’m left having to tell my wife that “somebody called today, and she can’t meet you this week because she’ll be away,” in the hope that my wife will somehow be able to guess what on earth I’m talking about.
And it’s no good telling me that I should just interrupt the caller and ask who it is. This has all sorts of negative implications and can lead to hard feelings. For instance:
Phone rings.
Me: Hello?
Female caller: Hi Otte, I was wondering if you would have some time today to have a look at a project I…
Me: ‘Scuse me. Who’s calling, please?
Female caller: YOUR WIFE!
See? All this could so easily have been avoided with the simple, old-fashioned act of courtesy of self-identification at the beginning of the conversation.
The response I usually get when I ask the caller to identify him or herself is: “You don’t know who this is?” asked in such a tone of hurt incredulity that I feel almost embarrassed by my ignorance. This is followed by: “It’s me!” which I’m sorry to say is not help at all, but leaves me feeling that it should be. “Oh, of course. It’s you…”
And I’m no further ahead.
This problem is of special concern to people who marry into large families, and whose spouse has a fairly large circle of friends, many of whom are married. It can be difficult to tell voices apart when you start work in a large places of employment; it’s impossible when what may be a new relative calls you at home.
A partial identification is helpful, but not enough.
“Hello Otte?”
“Hi. It’s Paul.”
Ok. Paul from work? Paul who is married to my wife’s sister? Paul the guy I met at the dinner party hosted by my friend Paul? Paul, the radio talk-show host? Saint Paul?
I know I’m supposed to know who it is, but I don’t. So I have to play along, fishing for clues at to the rest of the identity, and this fishing expedition is fraught with hazards because it is so easy to say the wrong thing.
For example: “So Paul. How are the kids?” This is a bad idea because this might be unmarried Paul – or worse, Paul who has several cats but no family, and who hates it when people refer to the cats as “the kids.”
Questions implying the existence of a wife, life partner, children, job, recent travel, interest in a certain sport or preference for single malt whiskey are all out of the question. The conversation has to be completely neutral until Paul drops a workable hint.
“So Paul… How are things?”
“Things are good.”
That’s no help. “What’s new?”
“Well, we closed the deal.”
OK, that helps a little. This could be Paul who is buying a house, Paul who has been angling for a promotion, or Paul who wants to marry Karen.
“So what happens next?
“I guess we pick a church.”
Gotcha. I know which Paul, but it was way too much effort to get there, and far too many opportunities to have one of any number of Pauls mad at me.
So please. A little help here. It’s great to hear from you, I want to know what’s going on in your life. But you’ve got to tell me who you are!
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