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A phony tale

By Terry Joseph
April 05, 2003

For a really long time, it was easy to convince myself I was nobody's fool, able to discern and then pop fantasy bubbles with reality shards of empirical clearance or, where larger challenges presented themselves, aim the wrecking ball at lies of algebraic complexity.

With time, I could identify a fabrication from better than fair distance, rescue otherwise true stories trapped in misguided creativity, dismantle folkloric myths and rip apart with my bare hands, those wafer-thin untruths that, living the lie, puffed themselves up to telephone-book thickness.

Meanwhile, not wishing to tamper with existing karma, I pledged in exchange a relentless crusade for truth, making it the only rigid imperative, even as a world apparently focused on delivering us into varieties of temptation dangled its most tantalising lures.

As a personal philosophy, the concept endured surprisingly well ... until call-waiting.

Never unduly suspicious of progress or hasty to assay its net value, only recently did I properly plumb the ramifications of call-waiting, particularly that quietly-appreciated facility for accommodating outright falsehood.

Frankly, over the years, I considered the technology one of civilisation's divinely inspired communication pleasures, complete with the bonus of engaging in three-way conferences. Clearly, heaven could be summoned by nothing more ordained than the average index finger and literally in a "flash".

Oh, it is all that too, but call-waiting also has a dark side, one that offers push-button switching from ethically correct and cleverly designed telephony convenience to sound-proof shield for the most brutal betrayal of trust.

In doubling as a 24/7 tech-support system for ventilating repressed anti-social psychoses, call-waiting offers an unique combination of opportunities, allowing eclectic subscribers the choice of being rude, dishonest or downright deceitful to either or both suitors; all for one low monthly payment.

Think about the number of times, as part of a conference call, you were asked to remain on the line, conspiratorially silent, while your co-conversationist coaxes a third party into submission, confessing guilt or at least, acknowledging involvement in some awkward scenario.

You could actually participate in telling a lie without uttering a single sound. But since conference calling shenanigans are more often than not employed to discover truth, this saving grace ameliorates its competing potential for sinister applications, ranking it well below that of basic call-waiting; whose most attractive facet is frequently quite the opposite.

Ever notice when on the phone with someone who has call-waiting, the minute a beep intervenes, the party with whom you are enjoying refreshing conversation says something like: "Let me just get rid of this fool on the other line?"

Now, ponder a scenario where it is the other way around and you become the electronic intruder. Are you now deemed the "this fool", or do you enjoy priority consideration as a friend of long standing? And if so, how can you find out for certain?

There are even deeper implications for self-esteem, if you initiated the call, only to encounter sequential audio dropouts, indicating that incoming phone traffic to the other party is seeking to establish a pecking order.

Being electronic, the system is indiscreet and you can't wish it away. Especially for call-waiting, I suspect, scientists used carefully-timed intervals with sadistic precision, making the next episode of distress unfailingly predictable.

Once you hear the first beep, or worse, if you're on the side experiencing commensurate dropout, the psychology of water-torture kicks in. The next drop is coming soon.

No conversation can properly proceed unless the interruption subsides. Whether triggered by maturity or sheer annoyance, someone has to mention it.

Among the more clever versions of vocal blush is the already spurious: "Is that beep on my phone or yours?"

A harmless little white lie at source, once underway, it feeds on itself to the point of gluttony, knowing time is running out for composing that final flourish, the one that implies a grave situation pending; proffering that as the only reason for "having to cut such an interesting conversation".

Still, all you really get to discover is whether your relationship with the person on the other end of the phone is worth just one or fully two beeps.

Only the absolutely secure or abjectly scurrilous will say: "To be honest, my friend, the essence of our conversation evaporated a while back, so let me say goodbye now and check out the prospects for intellectual stimulation, original humour or business that may be waiting on the other line."

Among the standard pre-emptive strikes that may come at first beep are:

"Actually, I'm expecting an overseas call", "it might be the wife or one of the kids" or the perennial favourite, "I hate this beeping. Let me just get rid of this fool on the other line."

For once, being put on "hold" brings buoyancy, this petty triumph over the interloper still fragile, not yet a commitment of any value, until the other party returns. Don't gloat, guy. She may come back with the short shot:

"Something came up. I'll have to call you back," indicating your place in the standings; further definition coming from the speed at which that terminal "click" is activated. If her last word gets prematurely clipped, you're "toast".

Oh for the good ol' days, when a telephone "blag" ran no risk of interruption except, of course, you ruptured a ligament in your upper arm from lifting the big black heavy dumbell that served as receiver to an equally rudimentary instrument, one without any pretence of technical superiority-even in its time.

At least back then, we knew when someone on the other end said: "I'll call you back", they weren't being phony.

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