"Isn't it shocking the way telephone manners have deteriorated?" Miss Manners is often asked.
How's that? Can't hear you. Someone here is shouting. Now someone else is complaining that this is too loud.
Oh, she supposes they have. The truth is, however, that they were terrible from the very beginning.
Miss Manners would not dream of saying a word against dear Alexander Graham Bell or dear Thomas Edison, to whom we have such reason to be grateful. But they might have stuck to what they knew and refrained from trying to invent etiquette. You don't see Miss Manners messing around in their areas.
It was Mr. Bell who established the principle that people should drop whatever they are doing and attend immediately to whoever happens to be calling them on the telephone. Understandably, he was somewhat overexcited at the time. Not only had he invented the telephone, but he was in the middle of testing whether it could carry speech when he made a mess spilling battery acid.
It was enough to rattle anyone, but he should not have forgotten to say "please" when he called to his assistant, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you!" And he should not have taken it for granted that anyone on the other end of a telephone has nothing better to do than to rush to its summons.
His later choice of the proper word with which to answer the telephone was also unfortunate. It was "Ahoy!" But the amendment proposed by Mr. Edison, "Hello," is not much better, although it is now familiar to us.
For one thing, it was probably a misspelling of the British "Halloo," which is considered fit to shout at hounds. More important, it contains no information. Two people who cannot see each other exchange hellos, without enlightening the caller about who has picked up the telephone or the person called about who is calling.
We have lumbered along with these manners from then on, even to the point of resenting and resisting the inventions that came along to solve the problems they created.
The answering machine, which solved the problem of having to be forever on-call, was deeply resented when it first appeared. The idea that people "screened their calls" was considered insulting, as if it had ever made sense not to have any choice about whom to talk to when.
Now the answering machine and voicemail are not only accepted but expected. The same people (Miss Manners suspects) who used to declare indignantly, "I won't talk to a machine!" are indignant if they don't encounter one. "Do they expect me to keep calling back?" they will ask. Or worse, "I don't want to talk to him, I just wanted to leave a message."
Yet the outrageous idea that no one should be out of reach continues to hound people who do not yet have cellular telephones, or, even more provocatively, have them but occasionally turn them off.
Meanwhile, caller identification systems have come along. These not only assist those called in knowing whether the call is one they need to take at the moment, but solve the "hello" problem on one side, at least, by indicating who has called.
This unnerves many callers, Miss Manners has been told. Used to the preliminaries of guessing, they resent being greeted by name. She suggests they get over it. Nobody is more devoted to tradition than she, but there are situations in which a tradition that was originally flawed should be replaced by a sensible one.
People should surely be able to know, before they commit themselves to chatting, who it is who wants to chat. Hello?
Dear Miss Manners:
We all know that pointing is impolite, but could you clarify: does this pointing include all pointing or just pointing at people (or where it may be perceived that one is pointing at a person)? In other words, is it acceptable to point at the lamp on the mantel or a difficult-to-pronounce or unknown word on a menu?
This rule is designed to protect against "Oops, they're talking about me" and "Would you mind getting your finger away from my eye?" In other words, it prohibits only pointing to or toward people. Miss Manners would like to point out that it is not wrong to point as an accompaniment to "That lamp is about to fall off the mantelpiece!" or "I'll have that for dessert, but I'm not even going to try to pronounce it."
Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.
(c) 2004, Judith Martin