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Caller I.D. vs. Caller Id

This essay originally appeared in The Hook.


Caller I.D has revolutionized telephone etiquette. A helpful (though guilt-laded innovation) for the callee, the invention is potentially devastating for the caller. And not just tele-marketers. We’re all in trouble.

First, the new technology has outed the obsessives among us, shining light on a once-private proclivity. A warning to repeat-dialers who keep trying a number just in case: don’t. Each attempt is being documented– and proof of one’s ever-so-slight neurotic tendency is never pretty.

In the Bigger Sin Department, caller I.D. is a philanderer’s nightmare, the high tech equivalent of lipstick on the collar. I know a simultaneous dater who scrambles through his townhouse whenever the doorbell rings, deleting evidence of his transgressions from every call trap. Carefully. Too few clicks of the erase key could mean curtains for Casanova.

Telephonic accountability has forcibly tamed the wild-child within. In days of yore, I used to just hang up when I reached an obviously wrong number. Poor form– but what was the point in asking to speak to my younger brother if I could tell I had accidentally patched myself through to some geriatric long-term care facility? Why bother chatting up the receptionist? I’d just start over.

Not any more. The new technology has deputized a whole class of self-appointed phone police. Even if you hang up on an answering machine, concerned citizens call back to reprimand. There are actually people out there (you know who you are) who come home from work, scroll through the list of calls missed, cross reference those with messages left on voice-mail and then dial me back.

“Did you call?” friends and strangers alike have demanded when I’ve had the temerity to decline conversation with a tape recorder.

At the risk of local and long distance shunning, I must confess to an even greater offense: I am a reformed hanger-upper of correct numbers too. In order to avoid agonizing chitchat with auxiliary acquaintances (e.g. spouses of certain friends), I used to dial the phone and keep my finger hovering above the disconnect button in case the wrong party answered. On one occasion (okay, a few occasions) I even employed this tactic when making family calls. If anyone’s voice had a certain edge, the receiver would be safely back in its cradle before the second syllable was even uttered. (Appropriately right after “Hell–“).

Not long ago I was overcome by some confessional impulse to reveal my unsocialized behavior to a small group of women. I was relieved to learn I wasn’t alone. The others not only acknowledged the same misconduct, but they instructed me in the wonders of *67. Different than the reciprocal dialing feature *69 (what, by the way, is that about?), pressing *67 before making a call blocks your identity. The phone company understands the quest for anonymity. They just make us work for it.

On the receiving end, caller I.D. creates ethical dilemmas as well. In the old days (before area codes multiplied like subdivisions), there was no such thing as selective rejection. If you were trying to avoid a particular call, you avoided all calls. Now I feel guilty when I allow the mechanical receptionist to run interference. I know someone so fearful of this slippery slope that she’s afraid to screen calls at all. First, she frets, it’s avoiding a salesman, then a chatty neighbor, then maybe her own spouse! My friend steers clear of temptation altogether, averting her eyes from the illuminated numbers while reaching for the ringing phone.

Call-waiting presents other quandaries. I still haven’t found a graceful way to ask someone to hold mid-sentence while I attend to another caller beeping in. The weighted significance of dueling conversations is implicit in one’s choice. (Pardon me– someone more important is on the other line!)

And in person it’s even worse. I had a guest over when the phone rang. I checked who it was and then, thinking I was being polite to my company, let the machine pick-up. Big mistake. My visitor asked if I filter her calls too. I responded the way anybody else would.

Fortunately no one’s thought to install lie detectors in the telephones. Yet.

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