Phones were very different when I was growing up. Like most families (or at least the ones I knew), we had only one phone. It was big, white, clunky – a rotary phone – and it sat in the kitchen close to the door to the living room. Consequently, there was no privacy. Any and all conversations you had could be heard by one and all. Sometimes you were allowed to stretch the phone into the living room and shut that door, but in a house filled with six family members, it wasn’t often that you’d find the living room empty. Mostly, you just learned how to talk in code, or just not care that other people could hear your conversation. We were a family of six in a small house with one bathroom – we had mostly gotten over this whole mythical concept of “privacy” by the time we were old enough for talking to our friends on the phone.
There were other rules that went with the phone. Because for most of my childhood we were also a one-car family, we were not allowed to be on the phone for more than a minute in the afternoon if my mom had the car. Why? Because my dad would be calling from the post office or the union hall or (more likely) the local bar to tell my mom he was ready to be picked up. As I recently had to explain to my 8-year-old, there was no such thing as call waiting. If someone was on the phone when you called, you got this really annoying busy tone. And if you were my rather controlling father who refused to be inconvenienced, getting a busy tone when you were ready to be picked up meant wrath and punishment and all manner of unpleasant consequences. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time: we just told whoever had called that we couldn’t talk because we were waiting for our dad to call. It was a house rule and we followed it. Everyone understood.
Another house rule laid down by my father was even more sacrosanct, if that’s even possible, and it was this: thou shalt not call after 8 p.m. My dad got up early, crack-of-dawn-early, and so he went to bed early. Remember the not-liking-to-be-annoyed thing my dad had? Being woken up was very high on that list. So word went out to all of our friends not to call after 8 p.m. unless it was an emergency. Even hearing the phone ring after 7 made us all a little nervous. We’d race for the phone and dart our eyes towards our parents’ bedroom door. Even if our father was up we didn’t like it; it was like the phone ringing might have attracted the attention of the eye of Sauron or something. 7 p.m. wasn’t the rule, but it made us a little skittish; we knew it was early for everyone else (or maybe normal rather than early), but an 8 o’clock cut-off sounded reasonable. Telling our friends we couldn’t talk – and that they couldn’t call after 8 again – was awkward, especially in those junior-high years, but for the most part we thought it was a fair rule. I have always thought it was one most people followed, unless you know the person you’re calling well and you know that they’re up and about. Right?
I participate in a lot of surveys – I like to think that my voice matters and that my opinion is sought after and valued. (Hey, let me have my delusion.) It is not unusual for me to get five or so calls a week about surveys, both commercial and political in nature. Most calls come during dinner or when I’m in some critical phase of getting the kids to bed – not ideal, but how would they know what I’m doing or whether I have young children? But two nights ago some yahoo political research firm – I don’t remember the name, sadly, or I’d call to complain – called me at 9:30 p.m.!! As soon as the woman finished rattling off her (rather lengthy) intro, she asked if it was a good time to ask me some questions. “No!” I screeched, rather incredulously. “It’s 9:30 p.m. and we’re all in bed!!!” The lady didn’t even sound apologetic, although she went through the motions. Then, last night, the phone rang at quarter past eight with another survey call. The girls were spending the night at their father’s and I wasn’t anywhere near getting ready for bed, but really? You’re going to call after eight about whether I like a certain product? It wasn’t time-critical – say, an election poll the week before a vote or something – so what the heck people?! I kindly explained that we were going to bed (lie) and it was too late for such calls. Who knows if they record or analyze the answers afterwards, but maybe if enough people speak up, these people will learn them some phone manners.
Common sense and a tyrannical parent – a little goes a long way, apparently.