Something for the Weakened


Saturday, September 15th, 2007 by

I was sitting on a roof, smoking a fag a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself mulling over phone greetings. I’ve no idea how I came to be mulling that over, but mull I did. There have always been phones around me. One of my few pre-school recollections is of playing with my toy phone and the strange texture of the string from receiver to base. After that was broken or consigned to the bottom of a toy box, I remember playing with the real phone in the house, for which I was occasionally scalded. I nevertheless continued to play, until the fateful day when I managed to actually dial a real number. The sound of a strangers voice on the other end of the line terrified my shy frame and I immediately hung up and legged it. I never played with the phone as a toy again.

But as I said, it’s the greetings I ended up mulling over. In my boyhood home, my father had instigated the system of picking up and rather than saying “Hello,” or anything, simply reading out our phone number. This being the system as long as I remember, when I got over my telephonic phobia (the voice at the other end really had unnerved me) and was allowed to answer the ringing (I wasn’t permitted until I was, what, seven or eight at a rough guess), I was trained to answer in the same fashion. Why we answered in this way was not something I questioned. I was slightly confused by the answer of “Hello,” when calling Neill (with two Ls), but assumed that was because of his family being from Liverpool and that was the way that ‘common’ people did it. I was unpleasantly middle class from a very early age.

So why did we use this cold, clinical answering style? To this day I’m uncertain. Possibly to throw cold callers off their guards. Maybe to sound professional in those pre-mobile days when the boss could phone up, invite himself round for dinner and lead to hilarious consequences (there is something of the Terry Scott about him now I think about it). Perhaps there is some kind of historical precedence to it that I have no knowledge of. It could have had something to do with the involvement with Cold War warning stations. I’ve never bothered to ask and to be honest doubt I ever will.

It’s academic now anyway. In my early to mid teens, I realised that the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t actually be offended if I just said “Hi,” rather than reaffirming the number they had just dialled. I forget if it was an act of tiny rebellion or just because I’d become bored reading the number I’d learnt by rote, but I never again read it out to the dialler. Slowly the rest of my family moved away from it as well, though I have heard my father occasionally lapse back to it in the last few years. Nowadays, knowing who it is calling me at almost all times, I can tailor my response to the caller themselves. Never again shall I say “Witney, two two four seven.” That I think is a good thing.

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