Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Popularity Competition – Call Waiting

This week we discuss that affront to good manners that is Call Waiting.


Call waiting is alive and well in the USA. That helpful little beep when you’re on the phone that tells you someone else is calling in. I say “beep” but these days it’s loud and long enough to miss half a sentence of the conversation you’re having, so there’s no doubt that you have another call coming in. Call waiting is also the bread and butter of the psychiatric therapy industry over here; that and the plunging stock market, of course.

Think about it. You’re chatting away with your friend, and she suddenly interrupts you saying “Hang on, I have another call coming in”. You’re then clicked into the cyberspace holding zone, waiting to learn where you are in her pecking order of phone friends. She then comes back and, if you’re lucky says, “I have to take this” in a slightly worried tone, before you’re clicked off altogether. I say, if you’re lucky because there’s nothing worse than being told who’s on the other end, - followed by the dismissal. Anonymity of the caller allows you to think that her parents have met an untimely and grizzly end, which demands her immediate attention, or that her eldest child has just been expelled from school, rather than that’s she’s just bored with your conversation and needs any excuse to get off the phone. If this happens more than once a week to the average American, it can lead to serious self-esteem issues people.

There are two sides to this dastardly coin, and we should also pity the poor popular person whom everyone is calling. Again, picture yourself on the phone, and another call comes in. This time, because you also have Caller ID, a huge decision needs to be made. You can see who’s calling in, but is it a life or death situation? If you’re like me you might think, “Oh it’s my sister, I’ll call her back in five minutes and we can have a good natter”, then spend the rest of the current phone call unable to process thoughts because you’re imagining any number of family tragedies and you weren’t available. (Guilt for the next twenty years.)

Here’s a tip – If you answer the phone to a boring friend, start with “I’m expecting a call from the hospital/work/school so I might have to take it”. This gives you a great escape, although don’t try to fake a call-waiting situation as the other person can usually hear a beep too (i.e. know when there is a distinct lack of one.)

I think Oprah’s producers may be planning a special on Call-Waiting Anxiety Disorder (CWAD), it’s reached such levels here. In fact, I’m seriously thinking of launching my next business - “Call-waiting Techniques for Beginners”, available on CD or DVD in six easy payments. (That’s copyrighted by the way. Hands off.)


Yeah, what she said.

This post was my idea. It recently occurred to me that I had never encountered Call Waiting here in the UK, so I did some in-depth research on the subject (I asked my wife and a few of my co-workers about it). The consensus seemed to be that Call Waiting is sort of like NHS Dentists; people had heard of it, but had never actually experience it. Then I wondered if maybe the phenomenon had dwindled out in the US since I had left, so I asked Toni. Her response is above.

While in the States, I hated Call Waiting, for all the reasons Toni cites. It is simply rude, and that is why I think it hasn't made big inroads in the UK; they are too polite here to tell someone they are talking to that they would rather talk to someone else. The teenagers are rude enough, but they mostly text, and there is no need for Call Waiting if you're texting someone. (The exception to this rule is when they want to spill their personal life to everyone else in the train car by shouting into their phone about what they did the night before.)

Another reason it isn't popular could be the fact that is it £2.50 extra per month if you want it. Bad enough it's an invitation to be rude, but to pay for the privilege is just too much.

It always baffled me why anyone thought this was a good idea, to interrupt a conversation and then put the poor person in the position of having to choose between two friends. Needless to say, I never had it, and was always annoyed when a friend put me on hold to go off and chat with someone more important. I always agreed with Dave Barry who thought a better solution to this situation would go something like this:

"If you call someone, and they are on the phone, there should be some sort of signal that you receive to let you know the person you are calling is already on the phone so you could call them back later. They could call it a Busy Signal."

And if you really want to get a message to them, send them a text.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box


  1. I despise call waiting. We have it and I don't know why because the "Mean"ager never answers it when I'm calling thru. I think it is almost as rude as texting or answering your phone while having lunch with a friend. I have a friend I used to talk to on the phone quite a bit and our calls were forever being interrupted by her precious Queenager calling and mostly about nonsense. Inevitably it would be while I was in the middle of a great story. As a friend, I can tell you that it made me feel as though I wasn't important enough to deserve her undivided attention. Call-waiting is another way in which we dote too much on our children in this country. Yes, call-waiting is handy for an emergency, but really, how often does a real emergency occur? Most of the time it's just a nuisance. So I say, why bother? I rarely call my friend now. Enough is enough.

  2. I'm a great one for ignoring call-waiting, but the last two times I did that, I bounced the school nurse into voicemail, so I'm a tad wary now!

  3. Oh I would HATE that. Fortunately its not something we come across here. Sounds quite rude.
    Toni...... next time some one starts off a conversation with me explaining they are waiting for a very important call...... I shall KNOW!

    I hate being put in a stack & hearing an automated voice saying *Your call is valuable to us. Our lines are busy. We will answer as soon as possible* I feel like saying, *If the call is that valuable then why don't you get extra staff in to answer it?* But there's no one to tell.
    Good debate!

  4. I never really thought about this...I guess I just don't have enough people calling me ;)

    Usually when I am talking to my mom or my granny one of the other calls when I am on the phone. It usually goes like this "Kat let me call you back, your mom is on the other line" That isn't as rude as if it was a complete stranger.

  5. About 15 years ago, for some reason we had one of the very early versions of Call Waiting. I was sharing a house with 3 other people at the time, so the phone was in constant use (pre mobile days!) The message that the incoming caller got was "the person you are trying to reach knows you are waiting", but since most people were meeting Call Waiting for the first time, it just created a lot of confusion. It also felt very rude answering the call, finding out it was for one of the other people in the house, and telling them to ring back later.

    All in all, it just seems like a rather rude intrusion. If you're on the phone, that beeping is very distracting (I never answer it, but as Toni says, it means you miss chunks of a sentence.) And it isn't very nice to be told that some other caller has priority over you.

  6. I forgot to say that one of my housemates was from Australia, and so it felt particularly bad to tell his parents or friends that you were on a call and they could try later.

    We only used Call Waiting (it was called Call Minder at the time) for about a week, and then we all just ignored it.

  7. So funny that most people in the UK tried it then chucked it. Americans think I'm joking when I talk about this but I can't think of a single Brit I phone (and there are a lot) who has it.

  8. Caller Id has been available in the US for over 3 decades. I venture to say most Americans find the service a convenience rather than a bother. They have long got over the annoyance of having a call interupted by a call waiting in favor of being able to reach someone they need to speak to (like a child, spouse, parent).

    I imagine some people still misuse this service by taking call after call while a friend hangs on the other line. I think they are the exception rather than the rule.

    More of a bother to me is the person who is so addicted to their mobile phone they have to take every call immediately, no matter where or when it happens. There's nothing more annoying than being sat across from someone in a restaurant, listening to them having a conversation with someone on the other end of a mobile phone.

  9. Anon: You've hit on an important point, and one that I believe impacts on Call Waiting: the cell (mobile) phone. That was why I thought maybe call waiting had died out in the US, because cell phones had made it redundant. If you can only take calls at home, there is a greater chance that two people will need to speak to you at the same time, but now, with people taking calls in the grocery store, doctor's office, Pubs, restaurants, buses, planes, trains and at work (and at work, and at work, and at work) it makes Call Waiting less of a 'necessity.' As if.

    But in my experience, everyone (that's everyone) who had it couldn't jump on the incoming call fast enough, no matter who it was. I think it made people feel important to say, "I've got a call on the other line"

  10. I actually like Caller ID, and would like it even more if it told the truth! On my phone anyway "Private Caller" now means someone asking for money!

  11. Cell phones actually enhance call waiting. I haven't had a landline in years, but I remember call waiting usually being an extra service. I've never seen a US cell plan that didn't come with call waiting.

    Honestly I've kinda gotten over the rudeness factor of call waiting. My issue is that I still end up missing the other call half the time. It just doesn't often work as advertised and is more of a pain than it's worth. I'd rather my phone just went to voicemail.

  12. If one call is winding down and another call comes on my screen, I might tell the first person "Oh, my husband's trying to call me" and ring off.

    Most of the time though I just ignore the second call. They can always leave voice-mail.

    When call-waiting first came on land-lines I found being put on hold tremendously frustrating. Especially when that person had called me in the first place.

    My husband will just hang up, which is rude in itself.

    It got so I would just tell the caller to call me back when he was finished with his new call.

    Most of the time I didn't get a call back, which was fine with me. I actually hate talking on the telephone.

    Cells/mobiles are a blessing and a lifeline though. Mine has saved my sorry hide more than once. Like the two days in a row that I ran out of gas--in exactly the same spot. But that's a tale for another day.


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