The Communication Tool That Turns Jekyll Into Hyde

ACCORDING to the infallible (almost) ``Marsh Dictionary of Stereotypes,'' every scientist, physicist, inventor, is rumpled, absent-minded, charming, and above all, kindly. Obviously Alexander Graham Bell must have been like that: a sort of Albert Einstein. But look what happened - one minute he'd invented the telephone, the next second it had turned him into a bully. Instead of murmuring politely into its mouthpiece, mildly suggesting that perhaps Mr. Watson would care to step into the room if it really wasn't too much trouble and nothing more pressing was demanding his attention, the way I am sure he normally did, he commanded:

``Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.''

Graham Bell had met his Frankenstein. Once he had gotten his hands on a workable phone, he was a changed man. I am sure that's how it must have been.

No wonder lesser men and women fall under the telephone spell. Take your average considerate salesperson, hand him/her a phone and straight off he/she is summoning you away from your TV in the middle of a cliff-hanging rerun of ``Leave It to Beaver'' and exhorting you to buy a set of ``The Boys' Own Encyclopedia.''

Be understanding. Remember what happened to AGB and don't make your response too icy. A mere ``I don't ever conduct business over the telephone'' can be softened with a mumbled ``It's the principle of the thing.'' (It may work for you but I know just how Mr. Watson felt.)

It's not all joy for the men and women on the switchboard either. They have to be prepared for callers driven power-happy by the phone like the man a friend of mine told me about. She was working for the telephone company at the time and overheard a colleague dealing with a smart aleck on a pay phone.

``Please deposit 75 cents,'' the operator requested. The caller (obviously one of those men who imitate Nixon, a barking seal or Jack Benny at parties) eager to save himself a bit or two, mimicked the heavy sound of quarters dropping into the coin box. He'd chosen the wrong man, though, for the operator was no mean mimic himself. As soon as the caller had completed his third clinkety, clinkety, clunk, clunk, the operator went into his version of the burr-uh, burr-uh of a busy signal. Score: one for the operator, none for the caller.

The trick is never to knuckle under, never to be a Watson - even in the face of a wrong number. An extremely dignified friend of mine, a proper London lady, knew how to behave. Some unfortunate man in a hurry dialed her number by mistake.

``Is that you darling?'' he cooed into the phone.

``It depends,'' she said austerely, ``on who you are.''

My mother always set a good example, keeping the AGB and Watson side in perfect balance.

``How much do I have in the current account?'' she asked her bank over the phone.

The teller explained that the bank never, ever, gave out balances over the phone.

``Let me speak to the manager,'' mother insisted.

The manager had had dealings with her before but still believed that reason was his best defense.

``You see,'' he explained, ``anyone could ring up and ask for your balance and we wouldn't know who they were. A nosey stranger could claim `I am Mrs. Marsh. Please tell me my balance.' You wouldn't want me to, would you?''

``Oh,'' said mother, ``go on - tell her!''

``Now,'' said the manager, ``I know it really is you, Mrs. Marsh, and this is your balance.''

As I said, he had had dealings with her before.

I would like to see Graham Bell demanding, ``Mrs. Marsh, come here. I need you.'' Of course he did need her. If she had been there she would surely have found a way to make the blessings of his invention less mixed. The weight would have been firmly in favor of its incredible friendship-sustaining, emergency-coping abilities. Few AGB's, few Mr. Watsons.

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