Tele-etiquette

As social animals, we must abide by the etiquette of telephonic connectivity.


Coining new words or ‘neologisms’ is a pleasing pastime open to all users of a language. Success is measurable by the extent to which a new word catches on. All speakers of a language can join in: from children to dotards, teachers, beginners and lexicographers, wordsmiths, poetasters, drafters of speeches, ad-men, traders, crossword buffs and headline editors.

The Oxford Dictionary Online recently voted ‘Selfie’, as its most popular neologism of 2013. It is an Australian term for the self-posted photo using a ‘smart phone’ ‘Me and Bunny outside our igloo’ is a self-portrait, though incredible.

I propose my coinage, ‘tel-empathy’, as an apt word for phoning up to convey a heart-felt message of fellow-feeling to a friend or relative who has had a setback in health or job or a painful failure. I enjoyed an internet search to discover shades of difference between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’, overlooking ‘antipathy’. The suffix comes from the Greek “pathos”.

 We know ‘Ganapathy’, ‘Raghupathy’ and the modern ‘crore-pathy’. So telephonic empathy, like ‘telepathy’, comes naturally if one has the right gadget. It saves the bother of writing a stilted letter, finding the right address and stamp and trekking to a post-box with time-bound clearance.

As social animals, we must abide by the etiquette of telephonic connectivity. I grew up in a home without a phone. In that era, one had to plead with a prosperous neighbour down the street if one had to make an urgent call to the doctor or an office. A crafty aunt of mine had a trick of ringing up her husband at office and replacing the receiver after two rings; which alerted him to fulfil a task like buying a tin of cocoa powder before returning home, without extra cost.

Though I was brought up to answer letters promptly, I was never at ease on the phone. I often erred by trying to save the caller’s phone time and expenses by keeping my part of the dialogue laconic. This offended some relatives and ‘contacts’ who complained about it to my wife. It is an unwritten rule that the called party should not cut off a conversation abruptly, but leave the caller to indicate the moment for disengagement.

Another strict rule is that one must know the timings that must be absolutely avoided when calling a finicky friend. We found that a lady NRI in California loathed being called from India between 6 and 10 pm because she simply had to watch a TV serial about a disjointed family without losing an iota of the images and the talk. We regained her connectivity only after her wrath cooled down, with masalas we sent to her through a common friend.

When you lend or borrow a cell-phone, etiquette includes hygienic norms, like ensuring that the gadget is wiped on a sleeve, scarf or hanky to rid residual microbes. But it is for the owner to reclaim the phone, if the ‘friend’ casually pockets it and pretends he (or she) has already given it back. A by-law can be added that one’s archive of numbers and messages should be protected by a super-cipher combining capital letters, punctuation marks, maths symbols which you yourself cannot recall at will. Here our conventional all-purpose anodyne reply is both polite and secure: “I’ll get back to you soon.”

We need a protocol on ways to disable calls offering you insurance policies, voyages to Mars, ‘Vaikuntam’ in a new gated community, supersonic cars and suchlike goodies when you are battling insomnia. It is okay to ‘unfriend’ the nuisance callers.

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