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Wiring the World / THE NEW AGE OF GLOBAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS : Culture : 'Praise God, Your Voice Is Welcome': A World Roundup of Phone Etiquette : Arabs greet each other with profuse politeness. The French want to know who's calling. Italians have love affairs with the machine; Indians keep it under lock and key.

July 26, 1994|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Alexander Graham Bell spoke through a wire to his colleague Thomas Watson in 1876. "Come here," he said, the first command uttered on a telephone. Oh, what Mr. Bell wrought.

Around the world, different cultures have developed characteristic phone manners since Bell's day. No people open a call with more effusive hospitality than the Arabs. Whatever the subject of the conversation, it begins with what seems like five minutes of generally meaningless but absolutely essential greetings.

A ringing phone is answered: "May your morning be good."

"May your morning be full of light," the caller responds.

"Praise God, your voice is welcome."

"Welcome, welcome."

"How are you?"

"Praise God."

"Praise God."

"What news? Are you well? Your family well?"

"Praise God. How are you?"

"All is well. All is well. Welcome. Welcome."

Only then might the reason for the call be mentioned. And the goodbys will take almost as long and are again excruciatingly polite.

Compared to the Arab world, responses elsewhere are the soul of brevity: Britons and Americans generally say "Hello," although the latter sometimes simply say "Yes," and if they're in business or the military they may just answer with their surnames: "Smith."

The French answer their phones with the familiar "Allo," and they often add their name and the phrase "Qui est a l'appareil?" that is, "Who is on the phone?" In a number of countries, calls are answered with a touch of suspicion or curiosity, a reluctance to talk until it's clear who the caller is.

Italians answer "Pronto," or "Ready," and then it's the caller who demands "Chi parla?"--"Who's speaking?"--assuming the right to know the identity of the person at the other end.

Germans tend to answer the phone by barking their last names: "Schmidt" or "Mueller," even the women--and even if they have titles, like Herr Doktor, which in other circumstances they would insist upon.

In Copenhagen, Danes will answer with both first and last names, even women: "Karen Andersen."

In Spain, the response to a ringing telephone is: "Diga," or "Speak."

"Diga" is also a common response in Mexico, but Mexicans usually answer "Bueno," meaning "Good" or "Well." Like the Italians, the Mexicans will demand: "Where am I calling?" And if they have the wrong number, they'll indignantly hang up, sometimes with a curse, as if it were the respondent's fault.

Because of a cultural tendency to speak cautiously with strangers, callers must clearly identify themselves and state their purpose. Even then, the respondent may become vague and evasive.

"Is this the Mexico State Justice Department?" a caller might ask.

"I wouldn't know what to tell you," is the answer.

Business people and government officials commonly refuse to speak to strangers on the phone even if it concerns simple inquiries like "Where can I buy one of your vacuum cleaners?" The train system won't divulge ticket fares or schedules on the phone; you must go to the station and ask in person.

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In Brazil, after slowly and patiently dialing a number, if you are lucky enough to get an answer, the respondent will say: "Who's talking?" not to be rude but to make sure the right number has been reached.

Goodbys are elaborate, as if in person: "A hug" is a frequent sign-off, even to end formal business calls. "A kiss" is more casual, with someone you know personally. And the response in both cases is "Outro," "Another."

Like American teen-agers, many cultures have love affairs with the phone, none more than the Italians. They talk endlessly with relatives, friends and schoolmates. The telephone call has replaced formal letters of invitation, congratulations and condolences. As almost everywhere else, the cellular phone, called a telefonino in Italy, has become a popular status symbol, used widely and indiscriminately. Telefonini have recently been barred from parliamentary sessions, for instance.

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In Germany the telephone is hardly ubiquitous. You can get an unlisted number at no extra charge, and information operators will not indicate the fact to callers--in effect denying your existence. One wrinkle that arrived under Germany's liberal immigration policy: the installation of illegal phone booths where foreigners can call home without paying long-distance tariffs. Officials of cellular-phone networks have countered the trend by blocking all calls going to Pakistan, Togo, Gambia and Vietnam.

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In Russia, like most things, phone use is affected by the growing gap between rich and poor, new and old, foreign and Russian. So mobile phones are big hits among the rich, but most Russians have no phones at all. Thus ads for apartment rentals specify "telephone" with the same pride as "garbage chute" or "closet."

For those with phones, the answer to a ring is the French "Allo," which can be pronounced to reflect wide degrees of happiness or annoyance. Also popular are the curt "Da," or "Yes," and "Slushayu vas," or "I am listening to you."

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