Tuesday, September 25, 2007

[the telephone] tyrant of the modern age

New Nokia - er - phone

The question came up today why I hate phones so much. After all, everyone and his dog is glued to the phone pretty well 24/7 these days with the advent of the mobile monstrosity.

My first question is - why is it necessary to have to speak to someone on a phone in the first place whilst walking down a street [or even in a car]? We used to wait till we either got to the office or got home.

This gave us time to read the paper, notice things going on about us instead of living in a cocoon and at a frenetic pace. I'm not talking Richard Briars and Felicity Kendall but still - what's the necessity?

The businessman immediately answers: "Because I don't want to lose business." If your product is any good, why won't that person accept your secretary's "he's just stepped out of the office for the moment"?

And what if you're not a businessman or woman? I suggest it's just an affectation you induce yourself into and all those bells and whistles and tunes are pretty neat, aren't they, flashing away and polluting our airspace? Gives you a sense of empowerment.

Except that it does no such thing - it actually disempowers you. The phone is a bl--dy tyrant. Please tell me which parliament enacted the law that whenever the damned thing rings, you must immediately drop anything you're doing, stop the train of thinking, cease the conversation with the person you're with and devote your time to someone who has blown in from nowhere?

Why does the caller assume you've been sitting around half the day waiting for this call and you're eternally grateful for the chance to immediately drop your own business to help him/her?

Why does the caller assume that the person you're with is a lower priority because they took the trouble to get into their car and visit you whereas the caller just punched a number and bingo?

Why does the caller assume you have the time exactly at that moment to devote to addressing his/her issues?

The answer is that the caller never once stops to think. He or she is so into the faster-faster lifestyle that it's assumed that if it can't be dealt with in the first minute, then he hasn't any more time. This is bol---ks.

One of my friends goes too far, admittedly. He lays the three phones down on the table and sees which rings. If it's the phone which he usually answers, he asks: "Srochno?" [Is it urgent?].

Another friend has a better plan.

He lifts the receiver and holds it at half an arm's length, then sweetly asks the one he's with: "Do you mind? I'll just be a moment." Then he turns to the phone and says, warmly: "He--llo." A person with some sort of antennae picks up on that and asks when's a good time to call.

Lesson learnt - the phone does not over-rule the seated incumbent. Time must be mutually agreed, as it is with every other voluntary communication between two people.

But the person without antennae presses on with the inevitable: "No, I was just going to ask …" or "Just a quick question …" Naturally, it is irrelevant to the caller how long it takes, as long as he gets what he wants and gets it in one go.

With such people, if you say: "Could I call you in twenty minutes?" this immediately tells the incumbent how much time he/she has left and it's not nice. Stretching that time outside the expected range is nicer.

However, the caller won't like that. He/she will have another try. "Couldn't you just …?" or "Just a quick question" is repeated and then the whole story begins. The only way to deal with this is to repeat your own "could I call you" and then repeat it and then repeat it.

If you're up against a real hard case, your only recourse is to apologize profusely but you have to go and you promise you'll call, all the while moving the receiver further away and then sliding it into closed position, then slip the plug from the wall socket because they're bound to recall.

Or else they'll hate you forever and never come back. Good riddance, I say.

Again, the businessman will say he can't afford to make enemies that way and I reply that he can't afford to lose the customer he's with either and his customer is watching and listening closely to how the matter's handled. Then he/she also gets the message and two people have been trained.

I've lost countless people this way but none of them were ever contacting me for my health. They all wanted something for free and had no antennae. So my reputation as a curmudgeon got around and they knew they must play by these rules or not at all. This tended to leave one with either serious customers or good friends and with them one was ever so friendly.

"Just wait," you might say, "What if I myself wanted something from that person?" Well, you'd phone and ask if it was convenient for a start. Sometimes that gets you in straight away. If not, then have it already factored into your plan to have to call back twice more and any less is a bonus.

The Russians do have an expression and business people often use it: "Sorry to be troubling you but …" As there are so many over here who don't use any intro at all, then people who do are seen as better to do business with. They're going to be softer touches, for a start - or so the other person thinks.

This post was about empowerment - wresting the power back from the phone and from the people who would set your agenda for you and allowing you to be a full half-partner in a compromise on just when the two of you are going to deal with the matter in hand.

1896 version - kept calls to a reasonable length


  1. It isn't just mobiles, it is fixed phones as well.

    Many people get it, lots don't...

  2. So many things to rant about with phones and don't get me started on voicemail for businesses or government offices who reroute you via umpteen choices to holding while listening to muzak because "all operators are currently helping other customers" who no doubt waited ad infinitum before they talked to a person.

    Not going to be first in line for an iPhone when they finally make to your neck of the woods?

  3. Last time someone answered the phone in front of me I started off out the room, saying I'd call him.

  4. It highlights the problem of etiquette and who has the major or final claim to the person's time - the caller [who thinks he has] and the incumbent, who often expects to be treated this way and then is.

    Sackerson is right here, I think.

  5. "the Martini syndrome " again - the idea that we should always be available. Mobile phones can make you feel safer, though. But I agree with Shades - it's fixed phones as well. In Britain I wouldn't answer while "The Archers" was on and I figured if anyone called me at that time they weren't a friend anyway. The phone can, of course, be the conveyer of bad news and for that reason some of us have an uneasy relationship with it. What's an iphone, jmb?

  6. An iphone is a hyped up multimedia phone made by Apple that makes breakfast, entertains your children, wipes your bum and other useful things. The next in a line of supposedly must have digital devices.

    I am so totally over noisy phones, inconsiderate behaviour, answering the phone when you are talking to somebody and don't get me on to the office etiquette of disturbing somebody who has their ipod on while they are working. I have not quite worked that one out.

    I like my small mobile phone that I can use for making and receiving calls as I need to.

  7. The most annoying was in Singapore, which must have had the highest mobile phone density in the world. People felt that it was perfectly fine to make and receive calls everwhere. The most annoying was in the cinema and that was before the outrageous ring tones. GRRRRRRRR.

  8. Thanks, Welsh and Colin - food for thought and all this has inspired me [maybe to your chagrin] to run another post today on it.

  9. The shackles of technology alright. I drowned my phone in a glass of water and then 'accidentally' left it in my trousers on a trip to the tumble drier. Bastard thing still worked! Although all the callers sounded like Gold Leader barking over the comlink in the Star Wars Death Star scene, which was some solace at least.

    My Wife, who's too stubborn to admit that she lives in indentured servitude to these infernal machines, has since picked up a new one for me.

    If you want to start a militant group of cell phone luddites, count me in.

  10. Reverend Doctor - might just do that and welcome to my humble blog.


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