The Paranoid Schizophrenic's Guide to Modern Telephone Etiquette

Steve Fisher5. října 2012 • 06:00

When I was a growing up, my family had a rule about how many times we should let someone's phone ring when we called them.


The rule was six rings. It was my father's idea. He said that if someone didn't answer the phone after six rings, either they weren't home, or they couldn't hear the phone ringing because they were outside, or else they just didn't feel like answering.


He was usually in that last category himself when our own phone rang. For example, he categorically refused to answer calls at dinnertime. He thought that it was rude of people to call between the hours of 6:00 to 7:00 p.m., when most people were eating dinner. What really drove him crazy was when people called us during those hours and let the phone ring 10 or 12 times before giving up.


"Do they think we're deaf?!" he would ask. "Or do they think we live in some huge mansion where it takes us more than six rings to get to the phone?"


"Maybe we should answer it," my mother would tell him. "What if it's an emergency?"


"What kind of emergency?" he’d skeptically reply.


"Maybe someone died?" she would suggest.


"Well then, they'll still be dead an hour from now, won't they?" he’d insist.


Of course, this was back in the days when people had only a landline telephone. Today, now that most people have cell phones, the rules of telephone etiquette have changed considerably.


For example, now, when I call my wife, I always let her cell phone ring about 30 times. The first five rings are to allow the volume of her phone's ringtone to increase to a level at which she's able to hear it ringing inside her handbag. The other 25 rings are for the time it takes her to find her phone among all the other stuff she has in her handbag.


When calling other people, however, I still follow my father's old six-ring rule. One advantage today is that, if the person can't get to their phone in time to answer before I give up, they know from their "missed calls" record that it was me who called, and they can call me right back.


Another new aspect is that, now, not only do we know who recently called us, we also know who is calling us even before we answer. When I was young, this technology was available for landlines as an additional service, called "Caller ID." It was designed for people who had a reason to not want to answer calls from certain people – like their ex-spouses or annoying relatives. It was also a very popular service among paranoid schizophrenics.


Today, however, this fear-based technology is a standard feature on all cell phones. We always know who's calling. And when we call people, we know that they know that we're calling them. And they know that we know that they know.


So, on the one hand, it would seem like there's never been a safer time in history to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Unfortunately, there's also never been a greater chance of becoming one.


That's because universal "Caller ID" now raises the question of whether people who don't answer their phone when you call them are just unavailable, or whether they are not answering their phone because they know that it's you who's calling.


Okay. That's silly. Probably not.


But, what if?!


You search your memory. Did you say something recently that might have upset or annoyed them? Did you accidentally insult them with some casual, offhand remark meant to be humorous? Did you forget their birthday? Or did they somehow just suddenly decide that you're an asshole and that they don't want to talk with you anymore?


Even worse, it wasn't only that they didn't answer their phone. When you called, their phone rang a couple of times, and then you got a busy signal.


They actually refused your call!


WTF?! How dare they! After all these years of friendship? After everything you've done for them! And just because of something innocent you might have said that for some reason they managed to take the wrong way? Was that really your fault? Jesus!


That's it. Goodbye, friendship – if that's what it even was. What a fool you were to waste your trust and kindness on some worthless, unappreciative, two-faced…


Then your phone rings, and it's your friend calling back to apologize for not being able to take your call. He was driving and had to find a place to pull over in order to talk.


"Oh," you stammer. "Well, sure, of course. Heh, heh. No problem!"




In the end, despite all the new worries cell phones may be causing us, there's no question that they're handy. I'm only sorry that my father never had the chance to use one.


I know he really would have loved that "refuse call" option.

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