(un)common courtesy: part one

Writing Wednesday’s post, entitled “waiting,” sparked a few more thoughts I’d like to share.  Let me start by explaining what was once a common household item: the rotary telephone.

Now I realize that some homes still have a land line.  But the cordless, hand-held version that is seen today is nothing compared with the curious contraption that graced the homes of yesteryear.  For the fascination of the younger audience, I’ll attempt to tell you how it worked.

In dialing the rotary phone, you did not push buttons.  First, you removed the handset from its “cradle,” which released two tabs that placed the unit into active dial mode.  You then set a fingertip into a hole on a wheel that contained the first digit of the telephone number you wished to dial.  You rotated the wheel in a clockwise motion until your finger could go no further, stopped by a curved metal brace at the three-o’clock position.  At this point, you removed your finger.  The wheel would rotate counterclockwise on its own, returning to its starting position.  As the wheel made its way back around, the telephone would emit a series of audible clicks, the number of clicks corresponding to the number you had chosen with your finger, with the zero receiving ten clicks.

Aha!  One digit dialed!

This process was repeated for each digit of the telephone number, with each digit sending off its requisite clicks.  Then, there would be one more “connection click”; and, after a short but indeterminable span of dead air, the other line would ring.

To hang up, you simply replaced the handset onto the cradle, depressing the buttons that deactivated the phone and placed it in standby mode.

The most “mobile” that such phones became was if you bought a longer, spiraled, bungee-type cord to connect your handset to the unit itself.  Shorter handset cords often resulted in the entire five-pound phone sliding off of whatever surface it was on, and crashing to the ground with a sharp BRRRINGGG! which typically brought your call to an abrupt end.  For wall-mounted units, a short cord meant asking the person on the other end of the line to hang on a moment while you stretched in precarious ways to turn off the stove without dropping the phone receiver.

The issue with longer cords was that, while allowing more freedom to roam, you usually found yourself inadvertently tangling legs, lamps, pets and other objects in the darned thing, and having to periodically extricate all involved.  For this reason, the longer-variety cords usually wound up looking quite sad and dilapidated, much like the slinky that your kid brother got his hands on.

Now that you’ve got a clearer mental picture, let’s zoom out a bit.  Create a scene.  Place that phone into the kitchen or dining room of a 1950s family.  I see the Cleavers from the show “Leave It to Beaver.”  Imagine that June has made the usual evening dinner (no, this was not science fiction), and the family — Ward, June, Wally and Theodore (” the Beaver”) — are all seated around the table.  June has made quite the spread, much to the delight of all.

“Gee whiz, mom, I think this is the best dinner you’ve ever made!” Beaver exclaims.  June smiles and smooths his hair.  Ward checks in with the boys about their day at school, and Wally says that Eddie Haskell might drop by later to work on homework.  Then Beaver’s eyes get wide as he starts telling the family about the toy plane he’s got his eye on.

The phone rings.  BRRRINGGG!

June cuts Beaver off.  “Sorry, honey, hold that thought.”  She gets up from the table and starts chatting with her friend about a sale on berries down at the corner market.  After five minutes or so, June returns to the table.  “Now, where were we?” she chimes in, setting her napkin back in her lap.  Beaver starts in again, chattering on excitedly about the keen model plane he saw in Mr. Johnson’s toy store window up town, and how it really flies!  With some hesitation, he says that he’s wondering if he might be able to —

The phone rings again.  BRRRINGGG!

June gets up to answer it, this time not excusing herself at all.  In earshot of the family, she exchanges gossip with her girlfriend on the new young woman who has moved in three houses up the way.  Is she famous?  She looks like a movie star.  And people come and go so!

Ten minutes later, June returns to the table as if nothing has happened.  Beaver looks a bit dejected, but attempts again to explain that, if he could just get a couple dollars advance on his allowance, he will save up his money from the paper route to —


June goes for the phone.

What are you thinking, as you play out this scenario in your mind?  I don’t know about you, but I would think it was supposed to be a comedic scene.  Or perhaps that June is going to catch herself shortly, exclaiming, “I just don’t know what’s come over me!”  And the episode will end with the family gathered in the living room, as she delivers her apologies and the lesson they can all learn from it.  There will be tears, and Beaver will hug her and say, “Golly, I guess even mom’s make mistakes sometimes!” underscored by soft and poignant string music.

Why does this seem so farcical and out of place in the Cleavers’ black-and-white world?  “Because that’s not how the show is supposed to go!” you cry.

But I wonder — is this not how wholesome 1950s shows are supposed to go?  Or is it just not how life is supposed to go?  Period.

Some things used to simply be the norm among civilized and polite people.   One such “common courtesy” was that time with friends and family was not time one interrupted by taking calls.

When I was growing up in the age of rotary phones, you could take the phone “off the hook.”  (By the way, for those of you older readers here, “off the hook” last meant something akin to “exceptional,” i.e., “That band is off the hook!”)  Taking the phone off the hook (removing the handset from the cradle) resulted in the release of the buttons that, once again, activated the phone for dialing.  If no numbers were dialed within an allotted amount of time, an operator’s recorded voice would come on the line, quite audible to anyone nearby:

“If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again.”

This phrase would be repeated three times.  After this, the phone would emit a series of loud tones in rapid succession through the handset for about one minute:


Then the phone would “go dead” — falling silent.  No one could call.

I am not a child of the 50s.  Yet, even in my day, it was not uncommon for the phone to be taken off the hook to prevent callers from interrupting dinner or time with visiting guests.

Today, cell phones are on and available at all times.  Brought into restaurants and churches.  Answered during meals with family or visits from friends.  When texts or Facebook updates come through, alerts go off, phones are flipped open, and replies are sent immediately — even in the middle of live conversation with other people.  No one thinks twice about this.  It’s the accepted way of things.

But while “common courtesy” is no longer common, has being fully present and giving our undivided attention to others really become less courteous?  Or are we merely willing to accept that being discourteous is the new standard?

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I don’t think I’m quite ready to let rudeness become my modus operandi.

I had lunch with a friend today.  I left my cell phone in the car.

Tomorrow, I’ll have breakfast with a friend, and a graduation party later in the day.  I intend to do the same.

I claim no high ground here.  This is something I need to constantly be intentional about.  My hope is that, in making this small sacrifice, people will feel more valued when they are in my presence.  I trust that it will be one more checkpoint in resisting the urge to be me-centered, in favor of being more others-centered in my life.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

9 responses to “(un)common courtesy: part one

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  • Justin

    I kind of feel honored to be somewhat a part of the rotary phone era. Or maybe we were just technologically behind… I wonder if there are company directories that still ask if people are dialing from rotary phones.

    And I am willing to…TRY practicing the “concentrated communication” that you discussed =)


  • JohnCW

    I was just having this discussion a few weeks ago. There was one question I couldn’t seem to answer with any accuracy: Is it rude to text during a conversation if both participants don’t think it is?

    For example, I don’t use the f-word in front of my Grandma b/c she is offended by it.

    [although I do use it on FB….if she wants to be my “friend” then she’ll have to deal with the way I talk to my friends]

    Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with the word. It’s actually quite wonderful and versatile. When I say it to Cathy [my wife], she’s not offended [so long as it’s not “aimed” at her]. Therefore it’s not offensive, and I wonder if the same type of relativity applies to “rude” behavior.


    • Erik

      I absolutely believe that perception of rudeness is relative. The whole thing with cultures who intentionally burp to show appreciation for a good meal says as much. And I agree that times have changed. Few people seem truly bothered by texting, Tweeting, or doing status updates to FB — even taking live calls — in the middle of conversation. I just wonder if this is a matter of merely changed expectations, or if it is actually a matter of lowered expectations. Is expected rudeness any longer considered rude? Many things are relative.

      At the very least, while some may no longer consider media interruptions during time with others to have a significantly negative effect due to adapted expectations, I might suggest that there can be significantly positive effects when choosing to give our full attention to someone. My experience has been that, while few may mention it when I have texted during conversation with them, many have commented when I have intentionally not brought my phone into my time with them. When they ask and I tell them that I did not bring my phone because I wanted to give them my full attention, they’ve expressed feeling more important and valued.


  • Barbara Dufresne

    Uh-oh. I have to work on this one. You are right!


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