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. And after my brief childhood contemplations about the formalities of the Barrett hello, I gave little thought to picking up a telephone.
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 90% of Americans having mobile phones and 96 cell subscriptions for every 100 people in the world, chances are, caller identification lets us know who is calling before we answer. And we know you know that we know who is calling.
So why greet one another with a meaningless word?
We see a person’s name (e.g., “Mom”) displayed even before we take the call. But we continue on with what is arguably a leftover formality, answering with a generic word. Then comes a feigned surprise. We play along, sometimes pretending astonishment at the sound of the caller’s voice.
Why this intentional inefficiency? Why not answer with a personal greeting?
Hello, you must be going
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. People in the 1880s needed a greeting that would take the place of what happened on the streets when one met a stranger.
Much later, in the seminal 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 the same landing strip when initiating a phone conversation?
Get to the point
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 curt, sure, these are more straightforward.
Each culture may need a different way to take calls, and perhaps it’s time we review how how we do it. Let’s look at where technology has brought us and get to the point.
Old posts in transition. This original post written in 2007.