March 25, 2004

That queerest of all the queer things in this world

Last November, I suggested that ambient cell phone conversations are distracting and annoying not because they're loud, but because they're one-sided and therefore frustrating to try to follow. In 1880, Mark Twain wrote a "comic sketch" about the experience of listening to one side of a "telephonic conversation" in which he makes a similar point.

I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world—a conversation with only one end to it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.

He goes on to give a complete transcript of his end of this particular conversation. Some aspects of the piece are dated -- the interaction with the central office, the need to shout to be heard down an unamplified phone line, and Twain's casual display of sexist stereotypes, which today is permitted in our better publications only when directed at men. But the experience is basically1 the same today as it was 124 years ago.

1The Plain English Campaign thinks that basically is "irritating". I  think it's the right word in this context, meaning (as the American Heritage Dictionary tells us) "In a basic way; fundamentally or essentially".

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 25, 2004 10:54 PM