Who is speaking?

By Dev Nadkarni

“Who is speaking?” How many times have those three atrocious words been inflicted on you when you’ve picked up your handset? Undoubtedly, it’s the most used telephonic “greeting” that the calling party uses across this country. In some languages it is even shorter: The cryptic Gujarati or Hindi “Kaun?” the nonchalant “Kon Boltay?” in Marathi and the terse Kannada “Yaaru?” are just three examples.

A few years ago when non-working telephones (and wrong numbers whenever they worked) were the norm with Indian telephones, I was spending my summer vacation at a friend’s shop helping sell his wares. His phone would be inundated with wrong calls through the day. On one exasperating occasion, he picked up his handset when the phone rang for the nth time, just shouted, “Tera Baap” and smashed it down in its cradle in a hundred degree celcius rage. Expectedly, the voice at the other end had asked that most wonderful question of Indian telephony, “Kaun?”

Another time, the voice at the other end, neither identifying its owner nor asking for a specific person on this end, hurriedly conveyed the message that his truck had broken down on Tilak Bridge. What was he to do? “Just stand there till another truck arrives,” said my friend, who couldn’t care less who the wrong caller was and put down the handset.

The primary courtesy of a telephone caller is to identify himself or herself and then enquire after the person he/she wishes to talk with. “Kaun?” or “Who is speaking?” is not just impolite –it’s a difficult question to answer and a terrible way to open a telephonic conversation. What if it’s the wrong number? What if the person receiving the phone is not the person the caller wishes to talk with? In any case, at some point, the caller has to identify himself and then ask for the person whom he wishes to talk with. Why not do it at the outset? That would save so much trouble and make the call so much nicer. But most people don’t!

In her younger days, the wife of one of modern Indian cinema’s most celebrated directors, was visiting London. She went to a phone booth and called a number she thought was her cousin’s. “Hello, is that Raj?” she cooed in her soft, mellifluous voice. “How I wish it was,” said the voice at the other end. Hanging up and flustered, she tried the number again. Is that (she spelt out the number). “If that’s the number you dialed, this must be that number,” said the same voice again. The young lady was learning telephone etiquette the expensive way in that London phone booth!