In some families, that sound may be all it takes to start an argument.
Nothing taxes a family's capacity for sharing like the telephone. It is the primary link to the outside world. And unlike the television or the bathroom, it doesn't wait passively to be used. Especially in households with teen-agers or young adults, its incoming calls can mean almost constant demands for attention.
Irene, a Tustin mother of a 17-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son, tried to explain her family's telephone frustrations. But just as she was getting started, there was an interruption.
"Are you going to be on the phone long?" asked her daughter, Laura. "I need to make a call."
Laura says she never argues with her parents about the telephone. "No, they argue with me about it. It's been easier since we got call waiting. Before, they said I talked on the phone too long. Relatives would call and say they could never get through because the phone was always busy. And I'd get blamed for it even when it was my parents who were on the phone."
But Laura admits that she and her brother use the phone much more often than their parents.
There are two telephones in the household, but only one line. Laura says most of her friends have their own lines. However, she says: "I haven't asked for one. It's unnecessary. My parents don't use the phone that often. And I don't talk on the phone constantly. Rarely do I talk for hours--only once every two or three months. I respect my parents' rights to the phone."
"It's much easier with call waiting," Laura says, "except there are problems when we're talking on the phone long distance or even overseas and we get a wave of calls from her friends that interrupt. And it's more expensive that way."
Despite the inconvenience, Irene says she and her husband would not even consider getting a separate line for their children.
"It's really the principle of the thing," she says. "We grew up at a time when you kept phone calls short. You didn't hog the phone. All these new systems encourage that."
Irene says that she understands that the telephone is important to her children but that she tries to keep it from becoming too important. "We only compromise so far," she says. "Talking on the phone is secondary to the family. If people call at dinner time, we tell the kids to say they'll call back later. You can let these things interrupt your life only so much."
Irene's family recently acquired an answering machine, but they don't use it to screen calls during dinner. Nor have they considered simply turning the phone off.
"My mother's living by herself in Delaware, she's 80, and I worry too much about her and my family," Irene says. "If there's an emergency of any sort, I'd like to be able to know about it."
Ivette, 24--who lives in Fullerton with her brother, 19, three sisters ages 20 to 25 and their parents--spends her days answering the telephone for a social service agency in Santa Ana. "But the phone at home is worse than my office," she says.
"It's chaos when the phone rings. Everybody tries to get it. We have call waiting, but my mom and dad hate it. There are lots of times when I'll be on the phone 10 minutes and get five calls interrupting. Sometimes I get people upset at me, you know. They'll ask, 'Did anybody call?' and I won't always remember all the calls that interrupted.
"I feel like an unpaid secretary. Sometimes it's hard to tell when the working day is over because everywhere I go I've got phones ringing.
"I've thought about getting my own line, but the only thing is, I'm probably the one who gets the least calls of all. It would be nice for myself, but it wouldn't solve the family's problem--and I'm sure that they would start using my phone eventually."
Ivette confesses that on the rare occasion when she is home alone, she might take the phone off the hook if she is not expecting a call.
"We had an answering machine for about a month, but it wasn't working right. Instead of just recording messages, it was recording some conversations, too."
Linda, who also lives in Tustin, says she and her husband, Peter, got so tired of answering the phone for their two teen-age children that they installed a second line, which costs them about $30 a month.
"Part of the reason was the layout of the house," she says. "The children's level is downstairs, and the rest of the house is upstairs. About 90% of the calls were for them, and every time we'd have to go downstairs and tell them they had a phone call. An extension phone wouldn't have solved the problem, so we just had another line put in.
"It works, but it just didn't work as well as I thought it would. Now about 50% of the calls are for them. If their line is busy, their friends just call the other number."
Linda's daughter Ingrid, 17, says sharing a line with her 13-year-old brother, Eric, is sometimes a problem. "He gets more calls than I do. But if I have to make an important call and he's on the phone, I can go upstairs and make it."