When You Answer the Telephone, What Do You Say?
I owe this post to the folks at Futility Closet, one of my favorite websites. Apparently, the word “Hello” has a recent history. Although it was Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, it was Thomas Edison who dictated what we said when we answered the call. In August 1877, he wrote a letter to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone to Pittsburgh: “Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON.”
Edison’s thinking was that a bell was not necessary: The word “Hello” was sufficient to get the other party’s attention. It seems that we got the ringer anyway—as well as the word Hello.
It’s far better than what Alexander Graham Bell was planning to use as a greeting: “Hoy! Hoy!” By the time the caller stopped laughing, the call recipient would have hung up in frustration.
Nowadays, most of the calls I receive begin not with a greeting, but a click as some sort of machinery cranks up the robocall script. Perhaps I should just say, “Hoy! Hoy!” and hang up at once.
As I read the words, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising. The book was Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968), about a demonstration against the Pentagon against the Viet Nam war. At the time, I was also under the political influence of another Norman, my late friend Norman Witty, who was very active with the Los Angeles draft resistance movement.
This is a good look at the sort of thing that influenced me some half a century ago:
On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. That was not characteristic of Mailer. Like most people whose nerves are sufficiently sensitive to keep them well-covered with flesh, he detested the telephone. Taken in excess, it drove some psychic element of static ino the privacies of the brain; so he kept himself amply defended. He had an answer service, a secretary, and occasional members of his family to pick up the receiver for him—he discouraged his own participation on the phone—sometimes he would not even speak to old friends. He had the idea—it was undeniably oversimple—that if you spent too much time on the phone in the evening, you destroyed some kind of creativity for the dawn. (It was taken for granted that nothing respectable would come out of the day if the morning began on the phone, and indeed for periods when he was writing he looked on transactions vis telephone as Arabs look upon pig.)
To this day, I still feel that way about receiving telephone calls. Was it Mailer’s influence? Or is it some ornery impulse that makes it all right for me to make a call, but a damned imposition to receive one?
I was so impressed by Mailer writing about himself in the third person, with his occasional wry asides, that for many years I thought of him as America’s best essayist. Curiously, to this day I have not read any of his fiction, even his famous WW2 novel, The Naked and the Dead. Well, maybe later.