Hello? HELLO? Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? We’re going deep on the topic of the telephone in hopes that you win a free basket of wings at your local trivia night. Here’s something I learned recently:
The word “hello” wasn’t used as a greeting until the invention of the telephone. Before then, people said “good morning” or “good evening,” reserving “hello” to convey surprise along the lines of “ack!” or “gadzooks!”
Why, yes, I would be happy to use it in an overly dramatic sentence: “HELLO, HOW DARE YOU HIDE IN MY BUSHES IN A GHOSTFACE MASK BEFORE OCT. 1?!” Or, “HELLO, I WASN’T KIDDING WHEN I SAID I DID NOT WANT THE CHILI’S SERVERS TO SING HAPPY BIRTHDAY.”
It was Thomas Edison who suggested that “hello” could be a neat thing to holler into the phone hole. Alexander Graham Bell was pulling for “ahoy” as the greeting of choice, and I’m bereft he didn’t win. Can you imagine “ahoy” in casual circulation?
Anyway, thanks to author Jason Pargin for posting the “hello” trivia on TikTok and sending me down a weekend reading rabbit hole when I should have been doing literally anything involving a vacuum. He also pointed out that the “Looney Tunes” song, the one with the dancing frog — “Hello, my baby, hello, my honey” — was making fun of the hot new phone slang. It would be like a cartoon frog today singing, “Rizzing up my main character, it’s giving no cap, skrrt.”
Just as I was ready to finally clean a surface, The Washington Post released a stirring headline: “The new phone call etiquette: Text first and never leave a voice mail.”
Tech reporter Heather Kelly interviewed an etiquette expert and callers across generations to come up with modern phone guidelines. It’s the stuff in the story’s headline, plus rules around when to pick up (whenever you want), when to be emotionally nuanced via text (careful!) and when to use the speakerphone in public. (Wow, why are people still doing this in so many Home Depots?)
Also, don’t call and call if someone doesn’t pick up. Give them a second! If you’re on fire, go ahead and make that clear.
I cosign on all of this. Phones should be used to send funny links, request help from first responders or make human plans at which longer conversations unfold. As someone who detests stem-winding calls, I was ready for modern communication years before texting was an option. Here, I’ll give you a haunting memory:
In the 1990s, a nice teenage boy called me on the landline. He just got home from baseball practice, he said. I stood in my parents’ kitchen wondering why he was telling me this. Did he need medical attention? A normal person would understand the implied romantic interest. She would have, perhaps, asked questions about baseball (ick), made attempts to be charming (no), shared interesting facts from her own day (I was 15, it was awful). What I did was say, “OK.” That call and relationship lasted about two minutes, at which point I wandered back to my room to listen to “Rent.”
Young people today are so empowered to delay emotional development! The Post story points out that Apple has added a feature that transcribes voicemail in real time, which would have been helpful for Baseball Call. Imagine if we had the “text before calling” rule in days of yore? I might have just said no, or, I don’t know, pretended to die. Modernity is all about options.
A couple suggestions I’d add to the exhaustive etiquette report:
Taking calls on earbuds is fine, but please push a lock of hair behind your ears so we know you’re not just wandering through Publix saying to yourself, “HELLO, WHEN DID RANCH DRESSING GET SO EXPENSIVE? DO WE NEED SHAMPOO?”
Similarly, if you’re going to take important business calls in public, I want high drama. Make it worth our while, OK? Get the arms involved. Numbers, people. Dollar figures! Insults! Threats! We live in a texting culture, and melodrama is at a premium. I want you in baggage claim whirling around like a Looney Tune, shouting, “HELLO! I TOLD YOU TO BUY LOW, SELL HIGH, YOU NITWIT! I JUST GOT HOME FROM BASEBALL PRACTICE AND I AM ON FIRE! PLEASE SEND HELP. AHOY!”
Stephanie Hayes is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.