Alexander Graham Bell spoke through a wire to his colleague Thomas Watson in 1876. "Come here," he said, the first command uttered on a telephone. Oh, what Mr. Bell wrought.
Around the world, different cultures have developed characteristic phone manners since Bell's day. No people open a call with more effusive hospitality than the Arabs. Whatever the subject of the conversation, it begins with what seems like five minutes of generally meaningless but absolutely essential greetings.
A ringing phone is answered: "May your morning be good."
"May your morning be full of light," the caller responds.
"Praise God, your voice is welcome."
"How are you?"
"What news? Are you well? Your family well?"
"Praise God. How are you?"
"All is well. All is well. Welcome. Welcome."
Only then might the reason for the call be mentioned. And the goodbys will take almost as long and are again excruciatingly polite.
Compared to the Arab world, responses elsewhere are the soul of brevity: Britons and Americans generally say "Hello," although the latter sometimes simply say "Yes," and if they're in business or the military they may just answer with their surnames: "Smith."
The French answer their phones with the familiar "Allo," and they often add their name and the phrase "Qui est a l'appareil?" that is, "Who is on the phone?" In a number of countries, calls are answered with a touch of suspicion or curiosity, a reluctance to talk until it's clear who the caller is.
Italians answer "Pronto," or "Ready," and then it's the caller who demands "Chi parla?"--"Who's speaking?"--assuming the right to know the identity of the person at the other end.
Germans tend to answer the phone by barking their last names: "Schmidt" or "Mueller," even the women--and even if they have titles, like Herr Doktor, which in other circumstances they would insist upon.
In Copenhagen, Danes will answer with both first and last names, even women: "Karen Andersen."
In Spain, the response to a ringing telephone is: "Diga," or "Speak."
"Diga" is also a common response in Mexico, but Mexicans usually answer "Bueno," meaning "Good" or "Well." 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.
Because of a cultural tendency to speak cautiously with strangers, callers must clearly identify themselves and state their purpose. Even then, the respondent may become vague and evasive.
"Is this the Mexico State Justice Department?" a caller might ask.
"I wouldn't know what to tell you," is the answer.
Business people and government officials commonly refuse to speak to strangers on the phone even if it concerns simple inquiries like "Where can I buy one of your vacuum cleaners?" The train system won't divulge ticket fares or schedules on the phone; you must go to the station and ask in person.
In Brazil, after slowly and patiently dialing a number, if you are lucky enough to get an answer, the respondent will say: "Who's talking?" not to be rude but to make sure the right number has been reached.
Goodbys are elaborate, as if in person: "A hug" is a frequent sign-off, even to end formal business calls. "A kiss" is more casual, with someone you know personally. And the response in both cases is "Outro," "Another."
Like American teen-agers, many cultures have love affairs with the phone, none more than the Italians. They talk endlessly with relatives, friends and schoolmates. The telephone call has replaced formal letters of invitation, congratulations and condolences. As almost everywhere else, the cellular phone, called a telefonino in Italy, has become a popular status symbol, used widely and indiscriminately. Telefonini have recently been barred from parliamentary sessions, for instance.
In Germany the telephone is hardly ubiquitous. You can get an unlisted number at no extra charge, and information operators will not indicate the fact to callers--in effect denying your existence. One wrinkle that arrived under Germany's liberal immigration policy: the installation of illegal phone booths where foreigners can call home without paying long-distance tariffs. Officials of cellular-phone networks have countered the trend by blocking all calls going to Pakistan, Togo, Gambia and Vietnam.
In Russia, like most things, phone use is affected by the growing gap between rich and poor, new and old, foreign and Russian. So mobile phones are big hits among the rich, but most Russians have no phones at all. Thus ads for apartment rentals specify "telephone" with the same pride as "garbage chute" or "closet."
For those with phones, the answer to a ring is the French "Allo," which can be pronounced to reflect wide degrees of happiness or annoyance. Also popular are the curt "Da," or "Yes," and "Slushayu vas," or "I am listening to you."
Because of the history of KGB taps, Russians are still careful of being overheard, often using the phrase, "It's not telephone conversation," to warn a caller to be discreet.
Often in Moscow an alien conversation will break into yours, and sometimes, according to Muscovites, you can't help listening. These aural glimpses show a Russian life that is never the relaxed, gossipy "reach out and touch someone" conversations so typical in America. Instead they have some urgent goal--such as arranging a meeting or a deal.
"The reason for this urgency is the poor quality," says a Moscow resident. "Pay phones are unreliable and the caller wants to get his message across before the connection breaks down."
In closed Arab societies, the telephone is a means of contact for those forbidden to see each other in person. A woman will call random numbers asking for "Mohammed," and when she finds a voice she likes, will strike up a conversation.
In India, you wait up to seven years for a phone--so when the connection is finally made it often prompts a neighborhood party. The euphoria ends about a month later when the first bill arrives and the subscribers realize how much it costs. In the Indian middle-class home, the telephone occupies the place of honor, often atop its special table, and is usually kept locked to prevent neighbors from making calls. But in the countryside where 70% of Indians live, phones are still a rarity: In some cases there is not a single phone in a village.
In Southeast Asia, almost everyone uses a version of "Hello" to answer the phone. Hong Kong Chinese say, "Wei." In countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, with a shortage of phone lines and a two-year waiting list, cellular phones are prized, but expensive--running $500 to $1,000 in Singapore and twice that elsewhere.
Bangkok's most popular radio program is a call-in show with phoners talking while stuck in the city's infamous traffic. Many posh restaurants have signs saying, "No Handphones," because people are fed up with the guy at the next table shouting into a phone. Some cinemas show trailers indicating that it is rude to talk on the phone during the movie.
In Japan, the person answering will customarily say, "Moshi moshi," the equivalent of "Hello," or perhaps "Hai," that is, "Yes." If he or she has the right connection, the caller may say something like "Osewa ni natte imasu," or "I am indebted to you for your kindness." Sometimes people bow over a phone, although the other party cannot see the bow. Many older Japanese, who never saw phones until the era of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, continue to use ceremonial phrases and bows over the telephone--as if it weren't there.
The standard goodby is "Ja, mata"--"See you later"--with the word "Sayonara" reserved only for occasions of a long or final parting.
In many Third World countries it definitely helps to know an operator. The Indian writer Khushwant Singh remembers trying to place a call from New Delhi to Lahore in neighboring Pakistan--when services were notoriously bad.
After hours of trying, Singh was contacted by the international operator who suggested that she had relatives in Pakistan who had wanted to visit India but needed visas. Being a member of Parliament, she said, he might come up with the necessary stamps.
Singh accepted the deal and within three minutes his connection was through.
Contributors: Janet Stobart, Rome; Tyler Marshall and Isabelle Maelcamp, Brussels; Marjorie Miller, Bonn; Mary Williams Walsh, Berlin; Steven Gutterman, Moscow; Susan Drummet, Mexico City; Tracy Wilkinson, San Salvador; Ron Harris, Rio de Janeiro; Kim Murphy, Cairo; Amit Sharma, New Delhi; Charles P. Wallace, Singapore; Sam Jameson and Chiaki Kitada, Tokyo.