Off the greeting path

Off the greeting path

Clive Thompson on the history of “hello” and its etiquette:

In the late 1870s, the advent of the telephone created a curious social question: What was the proper way to greet someone at the beginning of a call? The first telephones were always “on” and connected pairwise to each other, so you didn’t need to dial a number to attract the attention of the person on the other end; you just picked up the handset and shouted something into it. But what? Alexander Graham Bell argued that “Ahoy!” was best, since it had traditionally been used for hailing ships. But Thomas Edison, who was creating a competing telephone system for Western Union, proposed a different greeting: “Hello!,” a variation on “Halloo!,” a holler historically used to summon hounds during a hunt. As we know, Edison — aided by the hefty marketing budget of Western Union — won that battle, and hello became the routine way to begin a phone conversation.

But here’s the thing:

For decades, hello was enormously controversial. That’s because prephone guardians of correct usage regarded it (and halloo) as vulgar. These late-nineteenth-century Emily Posts urged people not to use the word, and the dispute carried on until the 1940s. By the ‘60s and ’70s, though, hello was fully domesticated, and people moved on to even more scandalously casual phrasings like hi and hey. Today, hello can actually sound slightly formal.

I’m of the camp that hello is a leftover. I personally struggle with it each time I answer a phone. When caller ID introduced more data, “hello” began to seem disingenuous to me. I know you know that I know who you are. With this mutual understanding, why not simply pick up where we left off? “Hello” gets in the way of an otherwise forward-moving trajectory. Whether my anti-hello-ism makes me an alarmist or a curmudgeon, I’m happy to know the proper traditions, then happily wander off from them.