Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Caller-ID Pragmatics

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2007

Several years ago I head a phone conversation that started off like this. I answered the phone: “Hello?”

“Hi!” said a woman whose voice I didn’t recognize. “Who’s this?”

“Uh, who’s this?” I responded.

The caller stood firm: “Who is this?” Now she sounded a little testy.

“I’m the guy who answered the phone when you called,” I said. “Who’s this?”

She said, “Someone called here a few minutes ago.”

Oh! I got the picture. Calls like this one get me to thinking about a concept from the linguistic subfield of pragmatics. It’s called the common ground (CG), and denotes the set of propositions that all participants in a conversation believe. Typically, you make only statements that you don’t think are in the CG yet, at risk of sounding pedantic and boring. Of course, if I’m having a conversation, I can’t always know for certain whether a proposition I take for granted is one that my audience believes–or in other words, is a member of the CG. Sometimes I’ll misjudge; let’s say I assume someone knows I’m married, and I want to say something about my wife, for example, “I usually ignore anonymous calls, and I hate it when my wife takes them, and then says, ‘It’s for you.'” In this case, even if the proposition that I’m married is not in the CG because you didn’t know I was married, you’d probably just silently add the proposition to the CG (along with the proposition that she sometimes answers anonymous calls, etc.) and the conversation proceeds without a problem. But if I seriously misjudge, the conversation can crash. If I say, “If it weren’t for the fact that your son is dead, I’d have him expelled!“, and you are not aware that your son is dead, you’ll probably have a hard time accommodating to allow the CG to include this proposition, and the conversation will not proceed any further along its original track until this proposition has been explicitly discussed and verified. (And maybe not even then.)

Caller ID complicates the act of judging the contents of the CG. Let’s say I call a friend. His phone rings; he picks it up and says, “Hi!” Not the “Hello?” that you say in answering a call when you don’t know who’s calling, but the “Hi!” that means “Hey, it’s good to hear from you!” and would typically follow me saying, “Hi, this is Neal.” My friend must know it’s me calling. Not only that, he must expect me to know that he knows. Or at least, he judges the proposition that he knows it’s me calling to be unremarkable enough that I can accommodate it into the CG. Under what circumstances could he expect me to find this normal and not be freaked out over his previously unsuspected psychic abilities? He would have such an expectation if he believed the CG to contain the proposition that caller ID is common enough that most people will expect that most people have it. To sum up, just from his greeting, I can conclude that he believes our CG contains the propositions that: caller ID is very common; he has caller ID; he knows that it’s me calling him. Therefore, I can accommodate and proceed as if those propositions had indeed been part of our CG. In practical terms, this means I can skip the “This is Neal” part and go right to “How are you doing?”

That case was the easiest one to resolve, since I can take my cue from how the person I call begins the conversation. But when I’m the one who has to start it, it’s more difficult. Suppose the phone rings and I see it’s some other friend calling me. Does he know I have caller ID? Maybe. I could just skip the Hello and go to the post-identification hi, and then, assuming that the caller isn’t taken aback wondering if I really know who called or am just being strange, the proposition that I have caller ID would definitely be part of our CG. But do I want that? It could lead to complications later on. I’d better just play it safe with the first-round hello, let my friend identify himself, and then fake a tone of pleasant surprise in the follow-up oh, hi! And hope my friend doesn’t say, “Oh, come on, Neal, I know you knew it was me. I saw you screening your calls with caller ID the last time I was at your house, remember?” I don’t know how many share this reluctance with me; I do know that others are like my friend in dispensing with the hello, like “grapefruitmoon,” who is self-aware enough to state:

I don’t answer my phone with “Hello” anymore, thanks to caller ID. Unless of course it’s from my boss or a number that has never called me before. This is rare. (link)

And exactly what are these complications that arise if I let it become part of the CG between a caller and me that I have caller ID? Then it’s also part of the CG that when they call and I don’t pick it up, I still know (or can easily discover) that they called, whether or not they leave a message. If I know they called, and they know I know, is there then an expectation that I will call back? I’m not sure if that follows from the previous propositions, but it’s close enough that I prefer the fact that I have caller ID not to be in the CG, even if both I and a caller know it. (How is this possible? Somewhere down the line, it is not true that the caller knows that I know that the caller knows … that I have caller ID.) I prefer the old rule: If it’s important, the caller can leave a message, and then I can call back. Besides, if it becomes part of the CG that a mere call is grounds for a call back, then people waste time calling back wrong numbers or people who truly didn’t have anything important to say, who were just calling because they had five minutes to kill when they called, but might not right now.

Some of these call-returners I don’t mind so much. If someone calls me and says, “Hi, this is so-and-so; I noticed someone called this number a few minutes ago, do you know who it might have been?” my reaction is more of pity than resentment. Why would this person go to the trouble of returning a call that wasn’t even important enough to leave a message? But at least they aren’t acting as though the proposition that they do this is part of the CG, proceeding as if it’s generally understood that a missed call on caller ID demands a call back.

Other callers, however, believe the CG between them and anyone else does contain this proposition. And if everyone knows that a missed call registered on caller ID demands a call back, then anyone who calls someone can expect a call back, even if they don’t leave a message. That’s the kind of person I apparently crossed paths with a few years ago. A woman had responded by email to our ad for therapists for Adam, back when he was about to start his ABA program. She’d given a phone number to call, and I’d called it, and gotten her voice mail. Rather than leave a message, I figured I’d just try again later, so I made sure to hang up before the tone sounded and the recording began. When she saw she’d missed a call, she naturally called back, and was irritated by the uncooperative person on the other end who must have known she’d be calling back, and insisted on playing dumb.

It looks like this woman is not alone in her view of the CG as regards caller ID. Erika Raskin (who admits to an infuriatingly disrespectful procedure for handling wrong numbers when someone answers the phone) has encountered more of them:

Telephonic accountability has forcibly tamed the wild-child within. In days of yore, I used to just hang up when I reached an obviously wrong number. Poor form– but what was the point in asking to speak to my younger brother if I could tell I had accidentally patched myself through to some geriatric long-term care facility? Why bother chatting up the receptionist? I’d just start over.

Not any more. The new technology has deputized a whole class of self-appointed phone police. Even if you hang up on an answering machine, concerned citizens call back to reprimand. There are actually people out there (you know who you are) who come home from work, scroll through the list of calls missed, cross reference those with messages left on voice-mail and then dial me back.

“Did you call?” friends and strangers alike have demanded when I’ve had the temerity to decline conversation with a tape recorder. (link)

So has this writer at carpe decorum:

Last evening, the phone rang. I answered, only to be asked what I had called the caller about. I was stymied, not recognizing the name. The caller was politely frustrated because someone from my phone had called and not left a message. Fortuitously, something clicked and I asked whether these were the picnic hosts — affirmative — Aha. Yes, I had called about directions, but could not leave a message. The underlying frustration of both of us was apparent: why did you call me? All because of caller identification. (link)

And Todd Mitchell says that not only are messages not necessary for a call back; they’re not even wanted:

If you have called and I didn’t answer the phone, I know you’ve called (provided you show caller ID information). So don’t waste my time leaving a message asking me to call you back, you called for something, I see my missed call, chances are if I like you, I’ll call you back. (link)

It will be interesting to see what state the etiquette and pragmatics of caller ID eventually settles into. I’d be OK with a protocol in which caller ID is part of everyone’s CG, but I hope it doesn’t become the norm for callbacks to be expected for any call. That’s an inconvenience both for the people who are bound to make the return calls and for the people who are doomed to receive them.

7 Responses to “Caller-ID Pragmatics”

  1. Glen said

    “(How is this possible? Somewhere down the line, it is not true that the caller knows that I know that the caller knows … that I have caller ID.)”

    In economics, “common knowledge” refers to something for which both parties know that the other party knows that the other party knows… ad infinitum. If the regress fails at any point, the item in question is not common knowledge. “Mutual knowledge” refers to something both parties know, regardless of whether either party knows the other party knows. For some purposes, mutual knowledge will suffice for coordination; in other situations, you need common knowledge; and in yet others, something in between (a certain number of know-that-you-know layers) is required. In the situation you describe, it doesn’t sound like common knowledge is required, though something beyond mutual knowledge is. Once you have caller ID and they know you have caller ID, the etiquette question (“am I expected to call back?”) arises, even if you don’t know that they know you have caller ID. Suppose your caller expects you to call back if you have caller ID; if you refuse to do so simply because you don’t know they know you have it, in their eyes that makes you not just rude but opportunistically rude!

    However, I disagree with the normative expectation of call-back in any case (unless a message has been left). Why? If you’ve picked up the phone, it’s reasonable to assume you’ve seen the caller ID, because it’s either on the phone itself or near the cradle. But if you haven’t picked up the phone, you might not even be home. So for you to see the caller ID, you have to come home and automatically check your caller ID to see who’s called. This is something I almost never do. Instead, I check for messages.

  2. Glen said

    One more thing. My caller ID is inconsistent about whether to state the name of the caller as well as the number. Sometimes it says a name, sometimes “unknown caller,” sometimes “wireless caller,” etc. Now, it might be reasonable to assume you’ll call back a known caller like a friend or family member. But it’s not reasonable to assume you’ll recognize all numbers of friends and family, nor is it reasonable to expect you to call back every unknown caller (some of whom might be telemarketers or the like).

  3. Kip said

    I’ve noticed (at least among my friends and family) that people tend to call back missed calls on cell phones, but not on landlines. I’ve also noticed that some people won’t leave voice mail on cell phones of friends, because they expect you to see that you missed a call when you get in range. I guess it is common knowledge that all cell phones have caller id, and that all cell phones have a prominent message on the screen to tell you that you have missed N calls. But that’s not the case with landlines, which may or may not have caller id, and may or may not alert the user to the fact that a call has been missed.

    As far as the whole “A knows that B knows that A knows X, but A doesn’t know that B knows that A knows that B knows that A knows X” concept of common knowledge, the solution to the blue eyes logic puzzle requires use of the same principle.

  4. bearing said

    I am a generally socially awkward person (probably somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, but I’m afraid to ask anyone knowledgeable about it 😉 ), and I can testify that subconscious worry that I might get “caught” in situations like this has driven me to avoid the phone and email everyone about everything all the time. At least when I can get away with it.

  5. Matt said

    When someone calls and leads with “Who is this?” I take them perfectly literally and say that I don’t know.

  6. Laura said

    Is it only because of my different cultural background that I consider this “who is this?” conversation VERY impolite, almost rude? I was always taught to introduce myself by full name and explain the reason of my calling that particular number first! (That means to provide the common ground explicitely, especially when I am calling an unknown number!) And actually even though I may know that my friend knows perfectly well my caller ID, I ALWAYS start by “Hi, this is Laura, I’m calling because…” It’s just a mater of etiquette, people, who don’t do it this way sound simply rude and cannot expect any help from me…

  7. Gerg said

    Hell, I consider calling back someone who didn’t leave a message impolite. At least if it’s not someone you would have called anyways. They chose not to leave a message, who are you to overrule their decision?!

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