Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Praise of Civility (or, Just be Nice)

I called a wrong number this morning. It made my day.

The wrong number must have been someone's cellular phone. I didn't realize it was a wrong number, because their voicemail greeting was a canned message saying, "Please enjoy this on-hold music while you wait for your party to answer." I waited for about 30 seconds, then hung up, intending to call again later.

After 15 or 20 minutes, my phone rang, and a pleasant voice asked, "Did you just call this number?" I said I had, and asked for the person whom I'd been calling. The voice answered, rather apologetically, that this wasn't their number and that she didn't know anyone by that name.

I apologized myself, since it was my fault, and she gently assured me that it was no problem. I thanked her for her time, wished her a good day and told her to enjoy the snow. She responded in a similar fashion, and we hung up.

Now, that's the way to handle a wrong number. Somebody has taught their children well.

* * *

It seems like getting Americans to be civil in their interactions with each other is a constant battle, one that must be fought over and over again, not just from generation to generation, but from year to year. People who have been taught to be courteous seem to forget, and have to be reminded.

Here are three more typical wrong number scenarios:

1) You call a wrong number. The person at the other end has caller ID, doesn't recognize your name or number, and answers with a rude grunt: "Hello."

You immediately realize your mistake (because the person you intended to call is never that rude), and so you politely say, "I'm sorry, it sounds like I've reached a wrong number. Is this 555-1234?"

If it isn't 555-1234, then the respondent acts as if you've committed a crime worthy of death, or ruined their wedding, or something. You get a rude, and often profane, response. You start to say, "Oh, I'm so sorry," but the respondent hangs up before you can finish.

If it is 555-1234, then the respondent acts as though you have illegally hacked into their unlisted number at their hidden retreat. You say, "I'm sorry, I was trying to reach John Doe. Obviously I have the wrong number." The respondent's reply calls into question your IQ, your upbringing and your ancestry, usually with four-letter words delivered in an angry tone. Once again, the respondent hangs up before you can finish your apology.

2) This situation happens on the other end of the line: you're enjoying an evening at home, when the phone rings. You don't recognize the caller's name or number, but you take a chance and answer anyway. The caller, not recognizing your voice, pauses for a moment, and then barks, "Is John there?"

You say, politely, "No, I'm sorry, there's no John here. I'm afraid you've dialed a wrong number." The caller makes an angry comment -- as if it was your fault that he dialed the wrong number, maybe throws a four-letter word at you, and abruptly hangs up.

3) This last situation has only started happening since caller ID was invented. You dial a number, realize it's the wrong number, and hang up before the other person answers. A few minutes (or hours) later, your phone rings, and the voice on the other end demands, "Did you call this number?"

Whatever your response is, they then bark at you, "Why?"

No matter what your explanation is, they follow up with some sort of rude comment, and then hang up, leaving you to wonder, "Why did they waste their breath and a few seconds of their life to call me and say that? Why couldn't they just let it go?"

* * *
Indeed. Wrong numbers happen. We were all taught, either by our parents or our first-grade teachers, how to handle wrong numbers, from both ends. There's no need to be rude about it. All rudeness does is prove that the rude person is a jerk, and although the anonymity of a telephone line can hide your identity, it cannot hide your uncultured rudeness.

Just be nice, people. If you call a wrong number, apologize for disturbing the person on the other end. If you're the recipient of a call to a wrong number, recognize that the other person might be under pressure or confused, and be gentle with them. If someone calls you and hangs up before you can answer, let it go. If it's important, they'll call again, and then you can be gentle with them.

Thank you, Ashley, for a very pleasant conversation this morning. The snow is fresh and powdery today, and because of you, I really will enjoy it.


Jamie said...

Glad to hear you had a good experience today! I am convinced there are still a few decent people out in the world!

jodi said...

This is totally, totally made of win, Ray. It oughta be required reading for every human being, government leaders, autoresponders, and nameless bloggers. It costs nothing to be civil and nice, and the rewards are legion.