Jul 132012

From Great ‘Hello’ Mystery Is Solved:

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But Thomas Alva Edison coined the greeting. The word “hello,” it appears, came straight from the fertile brain of the wizard of Menlo Park, N.J., who concocted the sonorous syllables to resolve one of the first crises of techno-etiquette: What do you say to start a telephone conversation?

Here’s the interesting part, for me:

Like the telephone, the punchy “hello” was a liberator and a social leveler. “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Mr. Koenigsberg said. And “hello” was the edge of the blade.

Thank goodness for that! I abhor any and all forms of artificial social hierarchy. A person that you don’t know as an individual should be treated with the same respect and consideration — whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, of respectable family or not, and so on. A person is not entitled to deference just because he was born into wealth or title. A person’s preferences should not be dismissed just because she’s young. A person is not of dubious character just because he’s poor. Moreover, a person’s wrong behavior should not be excused or indulged because of his talents or accomplishments, even if considerable.

Now, unless you read a good chunk of 18th and 19th century literature, you might not be familiar with just how much social leveling has happened in the 20th century. The rules of introduction used to be extremely strict. For example, consider this passage from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where the ridiculous mess of pomposity and idiocy known as Mr. Collins introduces himself to Mr. Darcy.

“I have found out,” said [Mr. Collins], “by a singular accident, that there is now in the room a near relation of my patroness. I happened to overhear the gentleman himself mentioning to the young lady who does the honours of the house the names of his cousin Miss de Bourgh, and of her mother Lady Catherine. How wonderfully these sort of things occur! Who would have thought of my meeting with, perhaps, a nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in this assembly! I am most thankful that the discovery is made in time for me to pay my respects to him, which I am now going to do, and trust he will excuse my not having done it before. My total ignorance of the connection must plead my apology.”

“You are not going to introduce yourself to Mr. Darcy!” [said Elizabeth Bennet.]

“Indeed I am. I shall entreat his pardon for not having done it earlier. I believe him to be Lady Catherine’s nephew. It will be in my power to assure him that her ladyship was quite well yesterday se’nnight.”

Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme, assuring him that Mr. Darcy would consider his addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt; that it was not in the least necessary there should be any notice on either side; and that if it were, it must belong to Mr. Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance. Mr. Collins listened to her with the determined air of following his own inclination, and, when she ceased speaking, replied thus:

“My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world in your excellent judgement in all matters within the scope of your understanding; but permit me to say, that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy; for, give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom—provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.” And with a low bow he left her to attack Mr. Darcy, whose reception of his advances she eagerly watched, and whose astonishment at being so addressed was very evident. Her cousin prefaced his speech with a solemn bow and though she could not hear a word of it, she felt as if hearing it all, and saw in the motion of his lips the words “apology,” “Hunsford,” and “Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” It vexed her to see him expose himself to such a man. Mr. Darcy was eyeing him with unrestrained wonder, and when at last Mr. Collins allowed him time to speak, replied with an air of distant civility. Mr. Collins, however, was not discouraged from speaking again, and Mr. Darcy’s contempt seemed abundantly increasing with the length of his second speech, and at the end of it he only made him a slight bow, and moved another way. Mr. Collins then returned to Elizabeth.

“I have no reason, I assure you,” said he, “to be dissatisfied with my reception. Mr. Darcy seemed much pleased with the attention. He answered me with the utmost civility, and even paid me the compliment of saying that he was so well convinced of Lady Catherine’s discernment as to be certain she could never bestow a favour unworthily. It was really a very handsome thought. Upon the whole, I am much pleased with him.”

As much as I love Jane Austen, I’m so glad not to live in her world. If I did, I’d surely be some family’s troublesome and impertinent servant, taking liberties left and right!

I’m even glad that our culture has become less formal in the last 30 years, such that people are immediately on a first-name basis. Really, I just couldn’t imagine calling Paul “Dr. Hsieh,” as we see in Jane Austen novels. (Then again, my pet name for Paul is “Mr. Woo,” which is partly a joke on the conventions of Jane Austen’s time!)

In sum, thank you, dear telephone!

Oh, and one final thought: This seems to be a clear case in which a major cultural shift was instigated by technology, rather than by any intellectual or philosophical changes. Of course, the culture had to be ripe for the change — and America’s ethos of the self-made individual is far more compatible with an etiquette of social equality than with an etiquette of social hierarchy. Nonetheless, the technology made a huge difference — and the internet and social media is pushing us even further in that direction. (Yay!)

In essence, cultural change requires and involves philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that philosophy — let alone philosophy departments — will be the catalyst.

  • John P

    I do think the standard German telephone greeting (one’s own name, so that the caller immediately knows if he has dialed the right number or not) has its merits, but this was cool.

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