by Sara Hamdan
The first time her phone rang, a smile spread across Courtney Smith’s lips and she answered by saying “so did you tell them yet?” as she drummed a pencil against her nose and listened, wide-eyed.
The second time, she let it ring for an extra beat before picking up and saying, “Let me call you back, I’m in the middle of something.”
The third time it rang – and yes, the other patrons at the busy Starbucks were by now eyeing the popular girl with a mixture of annoyance and jealousy – she frowned and muted the phone’s ring before answering. She then pushed her brown curls away from her face, straightened her back and cleared her throat before saying a simple “hello?”
At this point, she went on to confirm that, yes, she is Courtney Smith and, yes, she was glad to hear from them. Starting off with “hello” was a safe choice, a little distant maybe, simultaneously informal yet polite.
Many languages today still use a derivative of the word “hello” specifically for the purpose of answering the phone. And even in a world of smartphones, people are still clinging to the word when there is no real, distinct use for it in the context of phone conversations. That’s a lot of weight for two short syllables.
But when the name of the person calling you is flashing on your caller ID, use of the once-standard greeting has become more of a nonsensical gateway to a conversation, one that’s beginning to fade away from a lack of necessity. Let’s face it, the word “hello” doesn’t evoke warm feelings of deep friendships and funny memories. It doesn’t say “Hi, I care about you, how are you doing?” It also doesn’t say “Look at how polished and sophisticated I am, you should hire me.” It is an impractical social convention, having persevered through technological and linguistic changes, that today actually means something like: “My time is precious: Who are you and what exactly do you want?”
Smith, a 25-year-old graduate student at Columbia’s English department, hadn’t mulled over implications of the word “hello” before today. Now, she tilts her head to one side, her blue eyes fixed on the view outside the cafe, and nods with the sudden realization.
“Now I feel totally self conscious about answering the phone,” she says. “It is kind of weird to say hello, like you’re asking a question, if you know who’s calling. But it also feels weird if someone doesn’t answer that way sometimes. Kind of abrupt. Doesn’t it?”
Maybe now. But the Oxford English Dictionary states that the word was circulating with regularity by the mid 1800’s as a way to greet people in a variety of forms – hillo, halo, hallo and the one Jay-Z still keeps popular today: holla.
The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, uttered his own version of the word to greet people on his new invention in the late 1870’s: “Ahoy!” Use of this expression quickly died out and Thomas Edison made its replacement, “hello,” popular as phones became more common. It all started with a note from Edison to T.B.A. David, then president of the Central District and Printing Telegraph Company of Pittsburgh, in 1877, according to Antique Phonograph Monthly: “Friend David, I do not think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away.”
Susan Hirschhorn, a 60-year-old piano instructor in New York, grew up with the word “hello” and isn’t ready to give it up for a trendy replacement.
“People just assume everyone has caller ID and yes, I have it, but I think it shows such a level of detachment and arrogance not to say hello,” she said, her Blackberry in one hand and coffee in the other. “It makes me feel like saying – who the hell are you?”
Hirschhorn likes the structure and tradition of the word “hello,” and while she is appreciative of technological advancements, she doesn’t like to see how manners are changing, too.
“I mean, it’s like we’re headed for a total breakdown of society,” she said, her voice rising slightly. “We need that structured way to initiate a conversation.”
For others, use of the word is more a force of habit than passion. Jason Saager noticed that when he is busy thinking about something else or not really into a conversation, he sticks to reliable, old “hello.” On the other hand, when the 27-year-old is excited to talk to someone, he will say the person’s name in the greeting.
“I can say it has to do with my mood and that maybe ‘hello’ is less personal, but at the end of the day it’s habit. I mean, back in the day the word “hello” was considered informal and kind of vulgar and everyone uses it now,” said the painter, an Arizona native. “The English language is just all over the place and it’s going to keep changing.”
In the 1920s, prim and proper Emily Post, an etiquette expert who still has a following today, set the guideline in her book that “on very informal occasions, it is the present fashion to greet an intimate friend with ‘hello!’ … but remember that ‘hello’ is spoken, not called out, and never used except between intimate friends who call each other by first name.”
Etiquette experts today, like Lyudmila Bloch of Etiquette Outreach in New York, still believe the word “hello” is an essential part of phone conversations that conveys trust, openness and good manners.
“Whether you know the person or not, whether you have caller ID or not – the proper way to greet a person on the phone is simply to say hello,” said Bloch. “It’s not formal or outdated and if they don’t say it, they lack manners at the very least. When people use abbreviations like ‘hi,’ it is just inappropriate.”
True, “hello” sounds better than some other alternatives. Natalie Wilson’s grandmother, who is from the United Kingdom, is used to saying the last four digits of her phone number by way of greeting like she used to as a little girl in the countryside.
“I can’t imagine picking up the phone when my boyfriend is calling and saying 4587,” she says.