Joe Bob's America: Don't call on me

By JOE BOB BRIGGS  |  June 3, 2002 at 12:35 PM
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NEW YORK, June 3 (UPI) -- Whatever happened to calling on people? Not calling people, or calling out to people, just ringing the doorbell, or appearing in a waiting room and presenting your card.

Of course, it's been so long since anybody did this that we don't even call the card a "calling card" anymore. It's a "business card," and it's specifically designed to make it unnecessary for the person to talk to you right now. It has your name, address, e-mail address, phone, fax, Web site, pager, and instant messaging code on it so that the person receiving it will know that he can contact you through the impersonal method of his own choosing. Later.

You might as well write on it "Don't talk to me now."

A classic calling card only has one thing on it: your name. Go to someone's house today and give them a card with just your name on it and watch how fast they call the cops.

Yet it wasn't so long ago that virtually every person in the world felt perfectly free to show up on the doorstep of any other person in the world. If you read the travelogues of Hans Christian Andersen, for example, he would arrive in Dresden, Germany, and think, "The German author Tieck lives here. I'll call on him." Sometimes he would have a letter of introduction, sometimes not.

This was before Andersen was famous, by the way. He was a nobody making these calls.

In Berlin he called on the botanist Chamisso, and "This tall, serious man with hair down to his shoulders opened the door himself." In Paris he didn't need to call on Heinrich Heine, the poet, because Heine came up and introduced himself at the Paris Athenaeum.

It was not even out of the question to call on a monarch, especially if he was your monarch. You simply wrote a letter stating the purpose of your visit, went to the palace, and showed the letter to an Ari Fleischer type who would tell you when and where to present yourself. If you wanted to ask the king for money, you were instructed in just how to put that request -- but the important thing was, it was not that big a deal to get into his presence and converse.

Even in the 20th century, if you read the memoirs of the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, you'll discover that none of the mayors, governors and wealthy businessmen he wrote about ever knew he was coming. (This included the notoriously stern and anti-social J.P. Morgan.) Steffens would take a train to, say, Minneapolis because he was interested in writing about the politics there, and then he would go down to City Hall and find out who ran the local machine. He would present himself at the boss's office, and eventually they would talk.

I'm not saying that the person called on was always glad to see you. They would say, "Come back at 3," or "I can't have visitors this week," or they would offer you tea in the parlor and then excuse themselves. (Houses don't have parlors anymore, because the parlor was a semi-public room specifically set aside for "callers.")

It's very telling that the meaning of the word "call" has been changed from "showing up" to "using the phone."

"Give me a call" is about as spontaneous as anyone today wants to be, and half the time they're lying when they say it. In fact, if you did make an actual formal call on someone today, your target would likely feel either threatened or angry. Probably 95 percent of the businessmen in the world would have a functionary get rid of you.

And yet, in the movies, nobody ever calls first. Erin Brockovich shows up in your office, whether you like it or not, and the audience applauds that. They think, "Well, he should drop everything he's doing and see her." Cops never phone first. Detectives don't phone. Movie reporters have never used a phone in their life, even though in real life the opposite is true: reporters rarely leave their desks. In Lifetime movies, all the emotional confrontations are always forced by a face-to-face, even if the aggrieved party has to drive there first. And nobody ever thinks, "Hey, that's rude!" There must be a little part of our collective unconscious that REMEMBERS the age of calling.

At any rate, I'm told that at places like the Wharton School of Business and Harvard Business School they now teach you to ignore phone calls from people you don't know until they've called back at least three times. (They don't teach anything at all about in-person callers.) I'm not sure what the principle is here. Maybe it's something along the lines of, "That FOURTH call showed initiative, by Jove! What a persistent little rascal!"

But I suspect that even the fourth call would be returned by a functionary. The boss is gonna be protected by private phone numbers, ultra-private cell phone numbers, public email, personal e-mail, voice mail, caller ID, the black hole of the fax machine (does anyone fax anymore? it seems so 1980s), pagers, caller IDs, wireless e-mail systems that screen out unknown addresses, and, in the case of a friend of mine, a Blackberry 5810 hand-held gizmo that's so complicated I'm not sure WHAT it does. I'm not certain whether its purpose is to communicate with MORE or with LESS people.

Of course, people in businesses that move at lightning speed are more or less forced to talk on the phone all day. This includes stockbrokers, Hollywood agents, news reporters (though not network anchors -- big difference), headhunters, realtors and almost anyone in sales. Their lives must be miserable. Every day must be like landing on Normandy Beach and starting your crawl through the hedgerows.

How many messages do you leave? How often do you leave them when the person doesn't call back? How many alternate voice mails do you leave messages on? What do you do when the secretary goes away from the phone for a long time, then comes back and tells you the boss is not in? What will happen if you leave an e-mail, a voice mail message, a cell phone message, send a fax, AND page the person? Will that make it MORE likely or LESS likely that you'll end up having a conversation? When does calling become stalking?

Years ago, when Walter Cronkite was the most famous newscaster in America, I was writing an article for my high school newspaper about a girl who was convinced her long-lost relative had been depicted on a Cronkite newscast about Latin American refugees. The girl had written letters to the government trying to reach her, searched news archives trying to get a transcript of the broadcast, and enlisted the help of her Congressman, all without success.

Being naive about the ways of the world, I said, "Well, I'll just call up Mr. Cronkite and ask him."

Walter Cronkite answered his own phone on the second ring. He listened patiently to the question, answered it, and the problem was solved. We didn't have to bother anybody else, and he didn't have to deal with 40 messages clogging up his various screening systems.

How utterly old-fashioned of him.

(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at or through his website at Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)

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