Friday, November 27, 2009


Telephone etiquette

There are some things that we remember for a long time. Some of them are the good things; some are the bad things. Sometimes, it’s just something neutral, but it just happens to be sufficiently remarkable to embed itself in the neurons of long-term memory, to come to the surface now and again.

One has just surfaced, and I thought I’d share it with y’all.

Around 25 years ago, I got a phone call at the office. I picked up the handset, and said, “Hi, this is Barry Leiba.”

“You called me?”, said a brusque[1] female voice from the other end of the line.

“Um. I don’t know. Who are you?”

“Jane Smith,” she said, retaining her abrupt tone. No, it’s not her real name; that long ago took its leave of my grey matter.

“I’m sorry: that doesn’t ring a bell. Do you know why I called you?”

Adding exasperation to her abruptness, she explained, “I’m in Personnel.”[2]

Ha! Now I got it. Three days earlier, I had called the general Personnel office number, and had left a message asking someone to phone me back about a particular issue, which I introduced briefly in the message. I had not called Ms Smith directly, nor should I have known who she was, and I had said what my call was about. None of this, naturally, had come through in this bizarre exchange.

It turned out well, though: now that I knew that Personnel was returning my call, I explained my problem. Ms Smith was able to help, and it all got resolved.

But... what a strange way to start a business call.

[1] I love that word, “brusque”.[3]

[2] That’s what we used to call the Human Resources department, back before people became “resources”.

[3] Perhaps my favourite usage of it is on the Monty Python and the Holy Grail soundtrack album. At the beginning of side two of the original LP, Michael Palin shouts an announcement: “This is side two! If you want to play the record from the beginning, please turn over! Do not play this side, if you want side one! This is side two!

Immediately following that, Graham Chapman, in a soothing voice and with pleasant music in the background, says, “We would like to apologise to purchasers of the executive version of this record for the peremptory nature of that announcement. The brusque tone was intended for buyers of the cheaper version.”[4]

This is one of the only cases I can think of where something is actually lost in having the whole of a recording on one CD, and not having to turn the LP over. The announcement was retained on the CD version, from which I transcribed the text above, but, of course, it makes little sense there.[5]

[4] There was only ever one version, the “executive version”; that was one of the running jokes on the record. And, by the way, the “soundtrack album” actually has a good deal of material that’s not in the movie, so it’s well worth owning even if you have the DVD of the film. Follow the Amazon link above.

[5] Arguably, the whole of Monty Python makes little sense, so one doesn’t fret too much. One just laughs.

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