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Posted: July 17, 2012 6:07 p.m.

Travis: The evolution of the telephone

When I first moved to Covington in 1970, to call someone on the telephone all you had to dial was the last four numbers of the seven-digit phone number.

Of course, calling Conyers or anywhere else besides Covington was long distance. It was a banner day when we could call Conyers and it was not long distance. But that improvement had its drawbacks. We now had to dial all seven digits of the phone number.

Even then we moaned that Conyers could call us and could call Atlanta and for them it was not long distance. If we phone users in Covington wanted to call Atlanta, it was still long distance. We would call friends in Conyers and ask them to call the Atlanta number and relay the message.

Now we have to dial the area code and then all seven digits. I believe the calling area we are in is one of the largest in the country. My sister, who lives an hour and a half's worth of driving away was so excited when it was no longer long distance for us to talk.

Thirty years ago, answering the phone was like entering the lottery. You never knew what you were going to get. The person on the other end of the line could be anyone. No caller ID for us. We were not phone whimps. We could not ignore a call if we did not want to speak to a person. We did not know who was calling and we didn't have answering machines to screen calls for us.

There was such a thing as phone etiquette. The person who answered the phone would be talking to an unknown quantity and didn't want to sound foolish.

Everyone takes the standard "hello" for granted. But Alexander Graham Bell wanted us to answer with the phrase "ahoy-hoy." Italians say "pronto" (ready). Japanese "moshi moshi." Most Scandinavian countries answer the phone by announcing their full names, a practice which seems sensible. The French say "allô" or "Qui est a l'appareil?", which means who is on the phone, a bit brusque but again sensible. The Greeks say "parakalô" which means please and the Spanish "diga" which means speak.

Before caller ID, once you got past "hello," grammar problems in case and gender arose. I tried to emphasize the correct phrasing to my classes. Sentences like "To whom do you wish to speak?" ("Whom, Mrs. Travis. We'll sound like a snob.") Or, "This is he (she)." Not, this is him (her)." ("Mrs. Travis, that sounds funny.")

That usually brought forth another of Mrs. Travis' pronouncements that many of my students remember. "It's not what sounds right; it is what is right."

One time someone called my home, and when I answered the phone, he asked to speak to someone whose name I had never heard of. I told him he had the wrong number. He demanded to know if I knew the person he wanted to speak to. I repeated that he had the wrong number. He rattled off a number and asked if this was the number he was calling. I again told him he had to wrong number.

He said I was being difficult and that if I told him my name and phone number, the problem would be solved. I think his exact words were, "Lady, if you would just answer my questions, we could all go about our business."

I try not to be rude on the phone and even wait out a solicitor's spiel before saying no thank you and hanging up. But in this case, I just hung up on him. Luckily, he didn't have redial or any of those other things phones can do today.

Answering machines and caller ID have taken the sporting element out of answering the phone. The only guess work we have is when someone calls from a cell phone and caller ID tells you wireless number.

We also don't need phone etiquette. The phone tells us who is calling and we can pick up the phone and say, "Hello, (the name of the person calling)." When people do this to me today, I am still somewhat amazed and taken aback.

I am not one to knock progress. And at my age, surprises are not all they are cracked up to be. Taking the guess work out of answering the phone does save me time and energy. I am guilty of looking at called ID and deciding not to answer the phone.

But sometimes, I miss the mystery.

 

Paula Travis is a retired teacher from the Newton County School System. She can be reached at ptravis@covnews.com.

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