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Phone culture

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The other day I was working on something with a colleague on the floor below. Despite having talked to him on repeated occasions, every single time we still went through the same palaver: "Hello mate, how are you?" "Good. And you?" "Excellent. Now, about this thing …"

You’d think that by the time we’d had our sixth call that we could have dispensed with the preliminaries. I mean, what could possibly have happened in the interim? Major life changes are unlikely to occur in that sort of time span, and if there’d been some other major drama I would have heard the screams, or at the very least been notified when the emergency services arrived.

Given that he comes from the kind of traditional media environment where a brick hurled at the head is considered a polite conversation opener, the colleague in question isn’t the type you could easily offend, yet we’re so bloody British, neither of us could help going through the motions. We ended every conversation the same way too: "See you later then." "Yes, take care." "You hang up." "No, you" etc.

On the face of it, this seems pretty stupid and it’s certainly a waste of time, but I’ve noticed on my travels that nearly every country has its own unique phone culture and an unwritten book of etiquette that governs how people handle their calls.

In Germany, formality remains the dish of the day. You might have worked side-by-side with Joe Bloggs for a decade, married his sister and given him one of your kidneys, but whenever he calls you can guarantee that he’ll open up with, "Hello, this is Dr Joe Bloggs speaking."

In America, they’ve stripped everything down to saying "Bill? I’ll meet you at six", and then hang up, while in Italy they don’t mind how you start the call as long as it sounds attractive and well-dressed. Whenever I dial Australia on the other hand, they groggily scream, "Do you know what time it is?" before hurling the phone at the nearest wall.

As far as I can tell, France operates under a multiple-choice system whereby anyone receiving a request in schoolboy French can either choose to: a) snort with derision or b) slam down the phone. That’s except in August, of course, when they don’t bother answering at all.

Vive la difference, that’s what I say. Every country has its own approach to the art of telephone answering, but over the years I have noticed one similarity that unites them all, and that’s whenever I call someone who owes me money, they’re never bloody in…

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