NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — No More Ringy-Dingies

Remember the last time the sound of a ringing telephone made you smile?

I think I do. I was probably still in school, pining for some fabulous high school hunk to finally call.

Perhaps, for you, it had less to do with teenage hormones and more with family ties. It could have been a birthday call from Grandma while you could still count your years on one hand … or, much later, word that your own new grandchild had arrived. It could even have been a nurse reporting the tests had come back negative.

Or maybe it will still be the Publishers Clearing House prize patrol.

Nope, not the Clearing House. If the Prize Patrol picks me to win $7,000 every week for life in their latest sweepstakes, I do hope they plan to let me know in writing. If they intend to call our telephone, they’re guaranteed to go to voicemail.

I’d hate to miss out on the riches … but it’s worth taking the chance. Nowadays, I hate the telephone.

I can’t come up with even one more recent ringy-dingy that’s produced more than an annoyed grimace. I flinch when I hear it. It’s irksome enough at home, where we still cling to the landline we’ve had for 33 years, but my mobile is even more tone-deaf. It either interrupts at the most inopportune moments — when I’m in class, for example, and have just admonished students to turn off their infernal devices — or shrills its head off, unheard and forgotten in the car.

The modern miracle called the telephone is choking to death on its own success. Shouldn’t the post office have forewarned AT&T? Over the past 50 years, the delicious pleasure of pulling a much-anticipated missive from the mailbox has been smothered to death by an avalanche of unwanted, unneeded and unasked-for opportunists who’ve stuffed the mailbags with junk.

Clearly, that flood of and fund-raising must be generating big bucks for someone, somewhere. Why else would your letter carrier have to trudge along his route beneath a back-breaking ballast of bales of unsolicited paper … nearly every page destined for garbage cans up and down both sides of the street?

The Postal Service (if not its well-toned work force) clearly benefits when people who want to sell stuff shower them with money. But the love affair has dimmed considerably for the rest of us on the “occupant” end of the transaction.

Remember when you’d actually anticipate gathering the daily mail? I just barely recall that — when it held the promise of a well-penned personal note, sweet greetings or even, perhaps, a check.

Now, we tread the well-worn path to and from our mailbox … right past the big wastebasket in the garage. And Russ and I don’t even gather it daily: Our faithful mail carrier has been known to show up and ring our doorbell in person when the mail receptacle is too full to accommodate another day’s delivery of junk mail.

Telephony, it turns out, has swallowed the same bitter pill. Since the late 1970s, telemarketing — a money-maker for the telephone companies — has stripped away all the excitement of jumping up to answer the phone. The goose has been choked with its own golden egg. The more businesses find innovative ways to use the telephone wires to snare reluctant customers, the cagier we have become at eluding their trap at the other end of the line.

And now it’s come to this: We don’t answer. Here at home, we let virtually all calls from unfamiliar numbers go straight to voicemail. At the same time, we find ourselves clearing messages far less often, as the clouds of chaff overwhelm what’s left of the wheat. Yesterday, for example, Russ felt the need to go through our tardy log of voicemails. He turned up 15 in the cache — 14 from telemarketers and robocallers, and just one from a regular human being (who’d already made contact with a text).

An informal study of friends and neighbors suggests that the Hanson household is not alone in the throes of its phone-phobia. Every single person I questioned confessed — sometimes sheepishly, sometimes in defiance — to ignoring calls from unfamiliar area codes and numbers. (That doesn’t include the several Millennials who asked, surprised, “You mean you can ‘talk’ on that thing?”)

Security is one issue. Phone scams abound — both the traditional, fleecing the elderly with mumbled tales of grandchildren in dire trouble, and the higher-tech kind leads to unwanted charges on your phone bill. Hint: If you pick up and someone asks, “Can you hear me?” — don’t say a word. Hang up. Your “yes” can be recorded and used to authorize scam purchases. Also, beware numbers beginning with 900. They are “premium service” accounts where the caller may pocket part of a jacked-up fee.

C’mon now. Did you really expect to hear from a mysterious dreamboat calling from the Cayman Islands, area code 345, or Trinidad and Tobago, 868? That one’s fairly easy to sort out, at least for those of us who lead more humdrum lives. (You can make sure by typing the number into a website like shouldIanswer.com or 800calls.com.) Automated robocalls that spoof a number that appears to be local — 701- or 218-, for example — can be harder call to pick out. When in doubt, we listen for the tell-tale hollow, empty gap — the sound of intergalactic space — before a voice begins … and answer with one finger on the hang-up button.

I long for the telephone days of yore. I’d love to dial an office or business again and be greeted again by an actual human instead of a robotic voice asking me to enter an extension. I’d adore getting a quick response to a simple question, the kind a receptionist could deal with in five words or less, instead of half a dozen recorded options, none offering the help I need.

If my party wasn’t able to take my call, I’d be deliriously happy to imagine a competent adult filling out one of those little pink message slips, then leaving it for the person who really, truly was “away from his desk” and honestly would return my call “as soon as he is available” … blissfully confident that she’d nag him later if he failed to get back to me.

But no. It’s over. Progress has offed our faith in Alexander Graham Bell. Remember the Ma Bell commercial that warbled that we should “reach out and touch”? We’re still busy touching our untrustworthy phones … but only to text a message.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — No More Ringy-Dingies”

  • Betsy Vinz March 23, 2017 at 6:16 am

    Remember when that guy cut the wires and Moorhead was without telephone service for a few days? We loved the peace and quiet. As for my mobile, well, I keep the ring off, so never hear it–and have yet to figure out how to access vouce mail. Just because I have a phone doesn’t mean I have to answer it. Same with the front door. Wonderful piece, Nancy. Thank you.


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