Somewhere deep in a stately home a bakelite telephone insistently rings. The equally stately butler walks the length of a corridor and picks it up.
The way that we use telephones has changed as a result of the different ways in which telephones now communicate. Most of the focus in the last few years has been on those evil little pillboxes that people carry round in order to fry their heads more rapidly. However, the changes in our use of the home telephone are at least as interesting as the new issues presented by the mobile.
Back when mobile phones were new and the size of a small dog, Umberto Eco merrily distanced himself from smug mobile users on the train by noting that they were not, as they thought, displaying their importance, but rather showing only that they were forever at the beck and call of their work. He gloried in the thought that not having a mobile meant that his time was unequivocably and uninterruptably his own.
The curiosity is that home telephones have gradually taken on behaviours that reflect this issue of intrusion and interruption. I think that these new behaviours are not necessarily to our benefit.
Let’s take the main changes in order. First, answerphones meant that you could take a call even when not at home. This, I recall, seemed little short of earth-shaking and (in acknowledgement of all the Douglas Adams nostalgia at the moment) almost as cool as digital watches. Because phone answering behaviour had no particular pressure to change, answerphones were simply used for taking messages when you were out. People even switched them off until they were leaving the house. The notion of not answering the phone because it wasn’t at that second convenient would be considered as little more than sheer naughtiness.
The second change was Caller ID. I suppose that Caller ID is still filtering through, but I notice that ever more phones are capable of telling you who is calling before you answer the phone. Ask yourself: what is the point of this if not to enable you to not answer the phone? A phone rings, you answer. That is the function of the ring. You cannot possibly increase the effectiveness or efficiency of phone-answering through knowing in advance who is calling. All you can do is enable the phone user to select when not to answer. The effect of Caller ID is therefore to have fewer phone calls answered.
Of course, Caller ID interacts with answerphones. If you don’t answer (if you are for instance, as I was repeatedly last night, up a ladder with a brush loaded with some extremely pungent oil-based paint), then your answerphone will do it for you. I have even heard tell that some people don’t answer the phone if they recognise the number and don’t wish to speak to that person right now.
Well, true or not, the idea of selective answering has taken hold, and has eroded the validity of the answerphone. Callers (myself included) now call, hear the answerphone pick up, are unsure whether there is anyone there or not, and are consequently caught in an uneasy no-man’s land. Does one say “Hello…are you there…hello?” before hanging up, as seems to be the current fashion? Does one launch into a precise and inevitably complex rendition of the exact timing and necessity of the call so that it will still be relevant and make sense when picked up hours later? The latter option is frustratingly likely to be interrupted by a breathless callee who then chooses to pick up rather than face an interminable message followed by the need to call back.
We are left in a state of almost permanent telephonic uncertainty. Calling (or answering a call) becomes an ever more subtle game of bluff and counter-bluff. Is the callee really not there? If I leave a message, am I committing myself to being here to answer the return call? What if I’m up a ladder? What if I’m genuinely inconvenienced, but don’t wish to give the impression I’m call-dodging (I do this a great deal; rushing to the phone in a spray of paint or water)? How do I not answer the phone in such a way as to communicate that I really, really don’t want the caller to try again in a minute ?
Because this is the ultimate issue of telephonic uncertainty: more unanswered calls means more calls. More calls means more unanswered calls. The logic is, well, unanswerable.
That’s why I’m thinking again about the butler walking, slowly, to answer the phone in the corridor. The image seems anachronistic because there’s an idea there that it’s something to do with large houses. It’s not; at least, not now that we have portable handsets.
No, I think the anachronism here is the length of the ringing. In the persistence, the patience, of the ringing there is not just a generous acknowledgement that answering the phone takes time, but also a rather insistent element of communication. If the caller holds on for 10, 20, 30 rings, it’s an indication of how much they want the phone to be answered. An off-chance caller (did we have such things?) would ring off after, say, five. A persistent ring, uninterrupted by an over-panicky
answerphone, allows you to come to the phone at leisure, knowing that if they’ve rung off by the time you’ve got there, it was, by definition, not urgent.
Now, there’s only one problem. A loud, persistent ring is deeply annoying. So how about this?
On your home telephone, you can identify a list of numbers as known. When they call, they can, while the phone is ringing, press ‘1′. This will change the ring from standard to loud (insistent, alarmist, however you care to set it). This means that important calls from known people can always be identified as such.
The corollary of this is that, for the rest of the time and for the rest of the world, the ring can be set to something inoffensive. Something soft, burbling, unobtrusive. Something that can happily ring for a minute or two without causing you to look for a handy screwdriver to jam into the mechanism. Something that asks you to answer without insisting upon it.
I suspect, finally, that the less insistently the phone demands to be answered, the more polite it is, the more it will be answered.