You Say Goodbye

When it comes to answering the phone, I’ve never been one for ceremony. I learned early on that our family was nothing if not practical. When I visited friends’ houses, they would impress us with phone etiquette, “The Barrett residence; this is Brendan speaking,” in their flat eight-year-old voices. But the Danzico kids: we just answered with a simple “hello.” It got the job done. To be honest, after my childhood run-ins with the formalities of the Barretts, I gave little thought to picking up a telephone.

But where it once seemed innocuous, “hello” is now causing me downright anxiety. The word, a common way of greeting someone when answering the phone, is standard in the United States, and fairly common both in England and France. It’s about as routine as making toast or turning on a light. It’s something we do to initiate and give a sort of permission for a conversation to start.

The problem is that “hello” has gone the way of VCRs, Crockpots, and Pink Pearl erasers. While we keep it around for all its perceived usefulness, it is simply not necessary anymore, and no one is admitting it.

“Hello” is a leftover.

A Greeting Without a Cause
The word, once having such a prominent place in social interactions, has now been rendered unnecessary by caller ID. With 77% of Americans using mobile phones, 11% relying solely on a cellphone, and a good number more using caller ID, we know who is calling. We know before we answer. And we know you know that we know who is calling.

So why pretend with a meaningless word?

We see “Mom” displayed even before we think to answer. But we continue on with the leftover formality, unthinking, answering with a generic word. Surprise! It’s Mom. There are a few seconds of pretending. We play along; we sometimes feign astonishment at the sound of the caller’s voice. All a big pretense. Not only is it disingenuous, but it’s kind of a waste of time.

Get to the Point
The origin of the word seems surprisingly unknown. While it is well-documented that Alexander Graham Bell himself originally tried to use “Ahoy, Ahoy” to answer the phone, the reason for the switch is not clear (although one might guess why his suggestion wasn’t popular). People, in the 1880s, needed a greeting that would take the place of what happened on the streets when one met a stranger.

But why a word without a real purpose?

In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill talks about the landing strip that humans need when they enter a store. The first eight feet of a store are useless, because people don’t see them. They are in effect blind to the entryways, and store owners know that this is dead space and goes unused. Perhaps Americans need dead space or the same landing strip when initiating a phone conversation.

But other cultures don’t seem to need it; they jump right in. Italians answer, “Ready,” leaving it up to the caller to demand, “Who’s speaking?” In Spain and Mexico, they answer “Speak.” And like the Italians, the Mexicans will demand: “Where am I calling?” And if they have the wrong number, they’ll indignantly hang up, sometimes with a curse, as if it were the respondent’s fault. While bordering on rude, these seem so much more efficient and straightforward.

It’s true that Americans may need a different way to answer the phone, but we should at least be mindful and honest about what is happening. Let’s get to the point, or at least catch up with where technology has brought us.