Long Live the Landline

Do you still have your old, corded phone? We have 7 Reasons to Keep Your Landline Phone.

Brother listening in on his sister's phone call
George Hughes, © SEPS

The landline was once our connection. For almost a hundred years, it was the model for talking to someone who was not in the room with us. The telephone wire plugged into the wall jack, and the phone wires ran from the house to the perfectly named telephone pole, and from that pole and all of its stalwart cousins standing along our streets, those wires found the people we would talk to on what was called the telephone.

We had a telephone on the little desk in the kitchen. For years the phone would ring, the beautiful sonorous periodic ringing that alerted us all that a call was coming in — someone had dialed our number! — and my mother would answer it. My father, unless he was there alone, did not answer the telephone because it fell under the duties of the household, I think, and he was a welder who was away all day fixing things and didn’t come home to answer the phone. After some years, we had another phone. Not another line, but another phone. When that happened, when people achieved two phones, it was thought far and wide to be a sort of luxury, a phone in the kitchen and one upstairs, so indulgent and in fact sort of lazy in that you wouldn’t have to come down to answer the phone, but you could simply turn there in the bedroom and take the call. It was the beginning of taking a call while not fully dressed.

When the phone rang in our house, we didn’t know who it was. I want to say it could have been anybody, but it couldn’t have been anybody. It was one of four or five people who had our number. We generally knew what they would say by what time the phone rang. Morning calls were certain people, neighbors, and early evening were relatives looking to chat. We didn’t want any calls after 10 or 11 at night, and we lived in fear of any call after midnight. My father said we should unplug it when we went to bed so that no one would have dire trouble in the night.

The telephone didn’t ring a dozen times a day, and its sound was a kind of minor event. Kids didn’t pick up the phone. I didn’t get a phone call until I was 12, if then. My mother would pick up the ringing phone and say hello and we all knew in a moment whom she was talking to, and her voice as she spoke to one of her sisters or my father or a friend was the tenor of the house. We didn’t listen to what she said, but we knew by her tone what the world was like.

There were films and stories in which the people in the dark, lonely house lifted the telephone receiver to find it dead, the wires cut. Sometimes we saw the gloved hand and the wire cutters snip the cord outside in the night. They were cut off! No communication in or out! The people on the island were getting murdered one by one, and there were heavy clues about who would be next, and all of this because the lines were down or cut or out of service. None of this: “Can you hear me now?” It was: “No one can possibly hear us now.” People were alone. Now, of course, the people on the island, as soon as there is any mischief, all send text messages with photos along with voicemails from their cellphones. So, everybody is safer, but our stories have taken a mortal blow from the fact that no one now is ever alone. No one is going to write a film where the bad guy goes around with his tiny little snippers and clips the internal diode in each cellphone. And most of the time, in the world that offered that special condition — being alone — as a possibility, it was a good thing. We miss it.

We didn’t want any calls after 10 or 11 at night, and we lived in fear of any call after midnight.

There is a moment we also miss, which was a wondrous landline moment. The phone would ring after dinner, and my brother would answer it and say hello, and after a moment, he would holler, “Ronnie! It’s for you.” The phrase is long gone because no one shares a phone anymore. And my brother would call me loudly enough to wake the house, the downstairs and the upstairs. I was 16 and the phone was for me! But he wouldn’t stop there. He would ask, as he’d been instructed in phone etiquette, who was calling, and then he would yell, at the same terrific volume, “It’s Joylene!,” a name that had never been said aloud before in my house and the sound of which would arouse in all listeners, mainly my mother and father and little brother, the same alertness as if he had said, “There is an alligator in the house! A big one!” I would spring from my bed, throwing to the floor (sacrilege!) the new issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland I’d been studying, and sprint down the stairs, sweat bursting from my forehead before he could add what I heard him say as I turned the slippery corner into the kitchen: “Ronnie, it’s Joylene, a girl from school!” Then I would yank the phone from him, ignoring his grin, and say hello to Joylene, the nicest girl in the 10th grade, in such a way as to make it sound like, “Yes, who’s calling and why are you bothering me?” And no matter that she needed to know what time I would pick her up for the sophomore dance tomorrow night, I would answer in monosyllables, listening hard to the old telltale clues of our house so I could hear the residents creeping closer in the hall to hear what Ronnie was saying to Joylene: yes, no, okay, yes, sure, okay. Bye. And standing there in the kitchen in a household with a landline, I knew that the news was now public. Ronnie was taking Joylene to the dance. The village had been alerted.

This is the information we’re not getting now. There are no such moments in our beautiful houses now when the phone rings and everyone stops and listens to it ring twice, knowing someone else will rise to answer, and the communal well will fill.

Ron Carlson is the award-winning author of six story collections and six novels, most recently Return to Oakpine. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, and GQ, and has been featured on NPR’s This American Life and Selected Shorts.

Douglas Crockwell, © SEPS

From the Archive: Reach Out and Touch

Though landline phones may be on the endangered species list, in the 1950s and before, they were the lifeline of communities — and a teenager’s life. Throughout the 20th century, telephone accessibility and use increased dramatically. And with more use came more misuse. To counter growing problems with the mumblers, party-line hogs, and profanity, utility companies launched national campaigns to instruct consumers on proper telephone etiquette.

In So Many Words

People who talk interminably about conversation being dead in the United States ought to listen for a change — preferably on a party line. The Federal Communications Commission, in its recently published statistics for the fiscal year of 1954, reports that there were, on an average, 179,000,000 local telephone conversations a day, as well as 6,600,000 long-distance calls daily.

Purists frequently have strict interpretations of what constitutes conversation, but even in the 18th century undoubtedly only a minuscule part of talk was “brilliant.”

Perhaps the most pleasant conversation in the world is the easy, friendly exchange of personal thoughts and doings, which wouldn’t rate one-two with Dr. Samuel Johnson.

At any rate, telephone-company officials estimate that in a three-minute call the number of words exchanged may range — depending on whether the conversation is at a “normal pace” or a “blue-streak” rate — from 450 to 750, averaging about 500 words a call. This means, in a manner of speaking, that the nation’s telephone conversations represent approximately 185,000,000 addresses and soliloquies a day. Anyway it’s a safe bet that among all the trivial and perfunctory telephone messages, an extraordinary number of people at both ends of the telephone line every day find in their own “conversation” something pretty essential to getting through an average day.

—“Is Our Talk Witty, or Just Non-Stop?,”
Editorial, July 16, 1955

You Talking to Me?

In the Bell System and in other large companies, such as the General Telephone Corporation, the problem is classified as one of etiquette, or manners. A look at their bulging files on etiquette suggests that, among all the machines with which men have complicated their living while seeking to enrich their lives, the telephone stands apart. It is used more frequently by more people than any other complex mechanism we have, but the more it is used, the more it is misused. In contrast to the oboe, which Danny Kaye condemned as an ill wind nobody blows good, the telephone has to be described as a good instrument nearly everybody ill-treats.

Bad telephone manners are by no means limited to those who shout, or to those who hold the transmitter more than an inch from their lips when speaking. They are also displayed by the mumblers; the chewers and gnawers who try to talk with a mouth full of gum, or with pipes, cigars, pencils, or other impediments between their teeth; the wrong-number guessers who disdain directories; the executives who want the party they are calling to be on the line before picking up their own phones; the party-line hogs; the busy, busy people who let their phones ring and ring before answering; the operator baiters; and a long list of others. To the telephone executive, they all add up to one thing — wasteful inefficiency. Even the time-honored word “hello” is now passé. It is a fascinating, if idle, speculation to wonder how Alexander Graham Bell, the man who invented the telephone in 1876, would make out if he should return from his grave. It was his habit to open a telephone conversation with a resounding “Whoo-hoo.”…

Since the United States has more telephones in service than all the rest of the world combined, by a ratio of about six to five, it is here that the problems of bad telephone manners reach gigantic proportions. The operating utilities long ago realized that the installation of equipment and the maintenance of service was only part of their job. As early as 1912 they had begun a campaign to teach subscribers how to make more effective use of the instrument.

In that year the New York Telephone Company, a part of the Bell System, asked one of its bright young copy writers — a fellow named Howard G. Stokes — to prepare a booklet that could be used in this educational program. Stokes took the oblique approach. He felt he couldn’t come right out and tell the customers they were a lot of ill-mannered, ill-tempered boors, however truthful that might have been. So he reminded his readers that a display of friendliness is the surest way to get things done easily and quickly, and extolled the virtues of cheerful courtesy. Anticipating Dale Carnegie by decades, Stokes titled his booklet Winning Friends by Telephone, and closed it with the line, “The voice with the smile wins.”

—“How’s Your Telephone Etiquette?”
by Craig Thompson, March 16, 1957

This article is featured in the March/April 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives. 

Bad Manners on the Line

People staring at their smartphones during dinner or inconsiderately yakking away in public may be modern annoyances — but it’s only part of a long history of bad telephone manners.

Just two years after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his invention in 1876, telephone lines were growing thick above the streets of New York City. Americans were amazed to learn their voices could be carried anywhere by wire. And many, noted the Post, were mystified by the technology: “A woman who was having her first introduction to the telephone was told by the operator to place the instrument to her ear and listen to the words the wire would speak to her. ‘And now,’ said she, in all innocence, ‘shall I talk with the other ear?’”

But within a few years after becoming accustomed the phone, customers were already complaining about the service.

Much like today’s anxious texters, early telephone users didn’t accept that the person they wished to speak to wasn’t waiting by the phone. And callers would vent their frustrations to the operators if their party didn’t answer or the line was busy or, as often happened, they were connected to the wrong phone.

Operators weren’t the only ones noticing rude behavior. Angus S. Hibbard, the general manager of the Chicago Telephone Company, noticed that something about the phone seemed to bring out the rudeness in people. And it prompted him to write this lesson in phone etiquette for Post readers:

How to Use a Telephone

By Angus S. Hibbard, general manager of the Chicago Telephone Company

Originally published on November 24, 1900

The man who knows how to use a telephone properly is comparatively a rare personage, and the observance of a few simple rules and suggestions in relation to telephone usage would accomplish, for any busy man, a great economy in money, time, and vital energy.

The telephone has done more to lay bare a latent strain of belligerency in all mankind than any other feature of modern experience, and this element offers the greatest obstacle known to the universal success of telephone operation. But this attitude is not the only abnormal development attending the act of telephoning.

A man refuses to recognize plain physical conditions that would be apparent to a child in the primary grades. What man of affairs would willingly give a second audience to a caller who turned his back to his host and directed his voice in a direction away from him? Yet the majority of businessmen keep their faces a foot or more from the telephone and turned away from the instrument. To expect satisfactory results under such conditions is preposterous. The lips should not be an inch away from the rim of the receiver and the voice should beat squarely upon the drum to which the little “sound hopper” leads. Give a telephone instrument a “square chance” and it will do its work, unless radically deranged or defective.

This, however, is not the main difficulty. It is only the symptom of the disease. Lack of mental focus is the real trouble, both in talking and hearing — or, in telephone parlance, in transmitting and receiving. If your thought is not concentrated on the transmission of your message you will not make yourself heard or hear what is said to you. This is where a failure to realize that you are holding actual conversation is apparent. No person understands this phase of telephonic trouble better than the operator of long-distance lines, where conversations are important and comparatively expensive, and time is limited. He knows that, in case the two on the line do not readily hear each other, he must make each realize he is not talking into a hole in the end of an iron arm, but speaking into the ear of a man.

Shocking a Man into Attention

Sometimes it takes sound shock to effect this focus of mental faculties. Once, when hard pushed, I resorted to a desperate expedient, which demonstrated this point with indisputable force. That was several years ago, when prominent men were not so accustomed as at present to use the telephone. They generally delegated the task to their assistants — a practice now much in vogue in England, where it is well-nigh impossible personally to engage the head of an establishment in telephonic conversation.

But in case of calls on the long-distance wires the conversations were generally of a confidential nature. Therefore the “parties,” although not thoroughly accustomed to using the telephone, must be made instantly to understand each other, despite the added disadvantages of the “long range.” At that time I was in charge of certain long-distance lines in the East, and was called upon to engineer a conversation of the utmost importance between a Baltimore capitalist and a Boston financier. Time was an essential in the transaction, which involved thousands of dollars.

The Boston man seated himself at the instrument, in my office, and waited for me to get the Baltimore capitalist properly started. At the first sound of the latter’s voice I knew he was “not there,” mentally speaking. Then I resorted to the usual expedients to impress on him the realization that he was talking with a person instead of at an inanimate object.

“Don’t hear a word! This thing is —” he was saying.

“I’m not a thing, Mr. Smith,” I interrupted;  “I’m a man, about 30 years old, prematurely bald, with dark hair and gray eyes. I can hear you because I know you’re a real, live man doing business with your voice, right now. I can hear you because I’m thinking right to the point — and you’re that point! Now listen to Mr. Jones.”

But still I heard an irascible repetition of:

“Can’t hear! Can’t hear! Better give the thing up and telegraph. No use trying this old thing! It’s no account. I tell you I can’t hear a word!”

Meantime my Boston man was growing restless and excited. Every moment was of great value in the affair. Turning to him I said:

“If I were to tell Mr. Smith that he lies he’d learn how to hear every word you say in one second. Shall I do it?”

“Yes,” was the quick response; “and I’ll square it completely, later. “Very clearly I spoke into the receiver the words:

“Mr. Smith, you lie!”

“What’s that, sir?” came the instantaneous answer. “You call me a liar? Why, I’ll, I’ll —”

“You will understand,” I interrupted, “that I mean nothing of the kind — only that you do hear distinctly every word I say, and you are proving it. Now listen, quick, to Mr. Jones!”

He had no difficulty in hearing the Boston financier and the day was saved — simply because he was shocked into realizing that he was not talking at a thing, but conversing with a man.

Women are keenest to grasp the personality of the invisible conversationalist. A telephone is not a dead thing to them. They bow and smile into it and even stop before the mirror to touch up their hair when about to answer a call on a telephone in their own rooms.

Only a few days ago a man in Chicago decided to give his wife a novel surprise on her birthday anniversary. He arranged that, at a certain moment, her mother, whom she had not seen for years, should be at the long-distance telephone office in Philadelphia and should call up the daughter in Chicago. There was a telephone in the Chicago house and the husband answered the prearranged call. Turning from the instrument he said to his wife:

“Helen — here’s your mother on the wire in Philadelphia.”

The wife seated herself at the instrument and heard the familiar voice of her mother. It uttered one word: “Daughter!”

Suddenly the young matron in Chicago gripped the instrument and poured out her heart in the response: “Oh, Mother! Mother!”

Then, as she heard the sob that came over the wire from the aged mother, she answered in kind, still keeping the receiver at her ear. Speaking literally, those two women cried to each other until the tolls amounted to $15. Later they both said that it was the sweetest experience they had known since their long separation began! Nothing could more effectively demonstrate the sympathetic possibilities of the telephone or better illustrate the vital point of realizing the personality behind the voice.

Fist Fights Following Phone Talks

Lest any should think I have spoken with ill-advised harshness on the subject of the belligerency aroused by the telephone, let me say that I could give definite instances where men have put down their telephone receivers to meet each other in personal combat — and all owing to the fact that the instrument tempted them into a manner of expression that they would not have employed for an instant in a personal interview.

There are records in every metropolitan office which bear sad testimony to the cowardly, profane, and even vulgar abuse which some classes of men pour into the ears of telephone operatives who are innocent of blame — and who are also young women of refinement and respectability.

Such offenses are made of record, and their repetition leads to investigation, with the result that the offender is notified that he must mend his ways or his telephone will be taken out, and he will be denied the use of any telephone whenever his identity is recognized.

One way in which a large volume of time is wasted is in foolish preliminaries to the process of identification. Brown desires to speak with Abbott. Brown calls Abbott’s office. The person answering the call properly responds, “Hello!”

“Who is this?” brusquely asks Brown.

“This is Central 120. Who are you and whom do you want?”

“Look here! Who is this talking?” returns Brown. This kind of thing continues indefinitely until Brown finally says that he is Mr. Brown and that he wishes to speak with Mr. Abbott. By the time Brown gets Abbott on the wire he is thoroughly irritated and in no mood to conduct a business conversation of any importance. All this waste of time and energy could have been avoided had Brown responded to the clerk’s “Hello” in this manner: “Abbott & Co.?”

He is answered “Yes,” and quickly proceeds: “This is Mr. Brown. I wish to talk with Mr. Abbott personally.”

Always respond to a “Hello” by giving your name and asking for the individual with whom you desire to talk. Universal observance of this rule would save a vast amount of time.

In a face-to-face talk no man of ordinary judgment will speak in a mumble, a growl, a whisper, or a shout. A calm, even voice and a distinct but natural enunciation are the chief considerations, aside from those already mentioned.

Many a man who holds a telephone receiver so carelessly that its rim barely touches his ear wonders why he does not hear. I have even seen a bald-headed man clap the receiver against his pate and expect to hear when the instrument did not touch his ear at all. Reasonable results in telephonic communication cannot be expected unless the receiver is held firmly against the ear.

Rudeness to Unoffending Persons

With few exceptions, the man who finds he has secured a telephone number other than the one desired sharply tells the innocent party to “Get off the line!” or to “Ring off there!” A quick and polite apology, instead of a gruff order, is due the man who has been taken from his business on a matter in which he has no interest.

“Holding the wire” is another matter of constant and radical abuse. Your office boy calls up Attorney Jones; who is told you desire to speak with him. You are in the middle of the dictation of a letter and finishes it before starting for the telephone. Then a clerk stops you with a question which you pause to answer. Then you are waylaid by friends who have just entered. Finally you take up the telephone receiver. If Jones has not left the wire in disgust he is irritated. You cannot understand it!

Trouble will inevitably occur in telephone work. Errors occur from carelessness and from lack of acuteness on the part of operators. They are human. But they are also trained experts and the number of mistakes made by them is a marvelously small percentage of the total volume of connections made. When it is remembered that more than one large city of this country has, say, 30,000 telephone lines, over which are daily originated fully 300,000 calls, what wonder that some mistakes occur? Many of these calls are over “trunk” lines involving a secondary call, so the total of calls would be considerably more than half a million.

Every complaint is made a matter of record and filed in the “Trouble Cabinet.” At regular intervals an expert analyzes the records, making charts which show, at a glance, the nature, duration, and scope of the troubles which have assailed the lines in a given period. If asked to reduce to epigrammatic form the best advice to the telephone patron I would say, “Be courteous.” A broad application of this rule would work wonders in the effective use of the telephone.