Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997


Wrong Number
By "Guido Veloce"

I have colleagues who loathe e-mail and would happily abolish it. They have the right idea and the wrong target. Personally, I find e-mail to be an efficient, unintrusive means of communication, especially if you have nothing to communicate. It's the telephone we should abolish.

My dislike of the telephone is partly a family thing: I come from a long line of phone haters. My mother and her three sisters were all early telephone operators, a job they remembered fondly because it gave them a chance to eavesdrop on the rich and famous. They never forgave the telephone company for going to automatic switching, and dated the Dark Ages as the period between when they were fired and the rise of the National Enquirer. My uncle was also a family hero legendary for his phone phobia. Whenever the telephone rang, my uncle arose with arthritic stiffness, walked to the door and yelled outside to my gardening aunt, "It's for you!" Most of the time it wasn't, but he didn't want to risk talking on the phone unnecessarily.

My own dislike has grown in direct proportion to the rise of telephone solicitation. We live in a part of Baltimore that is particularly the target of home improvement companies, charities involving the police, and burial plot salespeople. Early in my stay--before I came to know and love the town--I informed one of the latter that I did not want to live in Baltimore, much less die here, to which he gave the classic telephone solicitor response: "Does that mean no?" We were also afflicted by a local minister, who regularly sent long pre-recorded messages. Our answering machine patiently recorded them until either it ran out of tape or his computer blessed it and hung up.

Telephone solicitation may be an annoyance under any circumstance, but it is doubly disruptive for people who work at home, as I do from time to time. Unfortunately, the best defenses--screening calls or ignoring the telephone--are not options for people who have family melodramas unfolding in multiple time zones.

I've pretty much decided that since there is no way around receiving such calls, the only appropriate responses are a polite no, or "put the request in writing," or to look upon the call as a potential psychodrama. Here are examples of the latter over the past four or five years, as close as I can remember the dialogue:

The Cool-Under-Fire Caller:

"Is this Mr. Smith?" (The telephone is in my wife's last name, not mine.)

"God, no. He'd kill me if he caught me here."

"I'll be brief."

The No Shame Caller:

"Why did you answer the telephone if you don't respond to telephone solicitation?"

"Because I thought you were calling to offer condolences to the family."

"No, actually I'm just trying to sell insurance."

The Obtuse Caller:

"Are you the financially responsible party of the household?"

"No, neither of us is financially responsible. We're terrible with money."

"You might be interested in our homeowner's line of credit."

The Metaphysical Caller Ponders My "I Don't Respond to Telephone Solicitation" Rant:

"What is telephone solicitation?"

"What you are doing?"

"What am I doing?"

"Interrupting my dinner and trying to sell me something."

"I'm not trying to sell you anything. I'm making you an offer."

"Will it cost me money?"

"Only if you like it. That's why I'm not selling you anything. You have to like it."

Me, in philosophical disarray: "You're still interrupting my dinner."

"I can call back."

If there are psychological victories in these encounters, I have never won them. And I do have sympathy for the causes and people who depend on telephone solicitation, even to the point of occasionally putting the non-response principle aside and opening the checkbook. But the sheer volume of calls--seven in as many hours when I was writing against a tight deadline--the use of computer-generated calls, and the obnoxious and intrusive tactics of solicitors make me all the fonder of e-mail. It at least gives me choice over when I receive messages, and the enormous satisfaction of watching ones I don't like being zapped into electronic oblivion.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins professor.