Call Waiting

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 October 1998

“I’m getting a call, hold on,” my friend explained before clicking off our phone conversation to check on the possibility of another.

He was the one who had called me – just seconds earlier, in fact. After hearing his voice on the machine (which I use as a filtration device) I figured our friendship dictated that I interrupt my work and pick up for him. Besides, he knows me well enough to assume I would be screening my calls, as I always do. If I didn’t pick up, he’d know I had made the conscious choice not to speak to him. So, out of a sense of genuine duty and a fear of getting caught, I lifted the receiver. But before I even found out what he wanted, he had put me on hold.

He didn’t offer me the opportunity to tell him I’d rather not hold. (I’m busy myself, you know.) Instead, he simply told me to wait for him to conduct his other business. Would he have done this to someone he deemed more important? Would he have put Nelson Mandela on hold? Probably not.

I could have hung up at this point. I was on hold against my will, after all. But such an action would surely be interpreted as arrogance on my part. How dare I think my time is so important that I can’t wait for my friend to evaluate whether his other caller is more important than I am? I’m not Mandela, I’m just me.

But whoever I am, and whoever you are, we don’t deserve to be victimized by the technologies that purport to save time and energy for others. A computerized switchboard operator certainly saves time and money for the company that doesn’t want to hire a human receptionist, but it costs time and money for the rest of us, who must submit to the endless array of menu options and touchtone commands. Even workers at the offending company end up wasting their own time when they submit to the automated telephone systems of other companies.

Etiquette and efficiency are linked in this regard. It is not polite to put friends on hold, or to value their time as somehow less important than one’s own. And when we do adopt such selfish standards as individuals, we end up costing ourselves more time and money in the long run. The minute you save today will cost you two tomorrow, when someone else does the same thing to you.

I know – I sound as crotchety as my grandmother when she complains that someone impolitely took her seat at the weekly Bingo game, or made her wait too long for a table at the Chinese restaurant even though she made reservations. (She cursed in Yiddish when she realized the hostess had let a wealthy couple with a haughty attitude take a table ahead of us.) At least she has an excuse: she’s so old that she feels her time left on earth is limited and shouldn’t be wasted unnecessarily.

Our immersion in communication technologies poses similar problems for the rest of us. The multiplicity of requests that are made on our attention – from beepers and cell phones to the interruption of call-waiting – force us to constantly re-evaluate the importance of what we’re doing. The phone conversation with mom might be subordinated at any moment, without warning, to a bleep from an unidentified party.

Under the guise of convenience and control, technologies give us an excuse to be rude and dehumanizing to our friends, while keeping us constantly on edge ourselves. They force us to make hard choices in a moment-to-moment fashion about who and what are important to us. Perhaps we should reckon with this a bit more consciously.

Clearly, my call-waiting friend failed the test. Through his unthinking retreat to telephonic limbo, he communicated to me that my time was worth less than the possibility of an important call. More sadly, he revealed that his own choice of how to spend his time – calling me – was less important than the demand being made by an as-yet anonymous caller. Like a young, overworked medical resident, he is always “on call.”

In this way, our technologies force a certain kind of honesty from us. No matter how much we curse the incoming call as we click away, we are nonetheless willfully inconveniencing and subordinating one human being in order to be available to another. On some level we communicate this as well.

Similarly, if we “spam” thirty friends with email because we’re looking for a piece of information, we are costing thirty people a minute each as they read our request and evaluate it, even if they take no other action on our behalf. Could we have found the information ourselves if we had spent that same half an hour (the cumulative time spent by all the others) doing the research ourselves, or narrowing down the list of possible helpers? The ease with which email programs let us abuse one another must be matched by a corresponding reclamation of basic manners. If it isn’t, our technology will cost us more in time and friendships than it makes.

For these reasons, I took call-waiting off my phone over a year ago. While I’m on the line with one person, everyone else gets my voice mailbox. If I miss a job or date as a result, I’ll live. And if I really don’t feel like speaking to whomever I’m speaking with, I’ll just have to learn to admit it and get off the line without any feeble excuses that my technology has gotten out of control.