16 June 2014


Back in the early 1900s the folks at AT&T gave a lot of thought to the proper use of their new contraptions called telephones. "Speak directly into the mouthpiece," explained one of the company’s instruction manuals, "keeping your moustache out of the opening." Well, we’ve come a long way from those quaint (and sexist) instructions, but telephone etiquette is still a lively topic on today’s table. I’m not talking about those strangers’ cell phone conversations we’re all forced to suffer through on buses or in restaurants, that’s another issue for another day. I’m talking about what happens in Brazil when you’re at home, minding your own business, and your telephone rings. You pick it up and say, "Hello?" And in what I can only understand as a complete breakdown of the otherwise extraordinarily lovely manners of Brazilians, the first words you are likely to hear your caller say are, "Quem fala?" (Who am I talking to?)

This quem fala is for us so wrong, so inappropriate, so rude that it never fails to stop me in my tracks. But I must say right away that every single Brazilian with whom I’ve discussed this believes strongly that they are right and we are wrong. Brazilians cannot continue a conversation until they know who’s at the other end of the line. Maybe a maid picked up the phone. Or a visitor. You have to know who picked up in order to address the person correctly and get on with the call. But what makes this such a pea under my mattress is that in our house the options of who’s answering the phone are small. Mark or Barbara. Take your pick. Male voice? Mark. Female voice? Barbara. This is not rocket science. So if you have to ask who you’re talking to, it means you’ve dialed a wrong number or you’re a telemarketer or you’re working a scam. Either way, you don’t know us! You shouldn’t be calling in the first place, let alone demanding that we snap to attention and identify ourselves.

From earliest childhood in the U.S. we learn that the person who makes the phone call is the person who identifies himself. Period. Mark and I have learned a lot from the Brazilians, and have taken many of their manners to heart. But this quem fala business? We’ll just never see eye to eye.

Here are a few strategies that Mark and I have devised over the years to deal with "quem fala." They work like a charm.

[Phone rings. Mark picks up.]
Mark — Hello?
Caller — Who am I talking to?
Mark — You’re talking to me.
Caller — What’s your name?
Mark — What's your name?
Caller — (Hang up)

[Phone rings. Barbara picks up.]
Barbara — Hello?
Caller — Who am I talking to?
Barbara — Identify yourself first.
Caller — I’m So-and-so, and your name?
Barbara — Well, who were you calling?
Caller — I want to speak with the head of the household.
Barbara — So you really don’t know me, right? You invade my house and demand that I identify myself to you, and all you want to do is sell me something? Let me tell you . . .
(By this time the caller has hung up.)

[And finally, phone rings, Barbara picks up. Barbara’s tired.]
Barbara — Hello?
Caller — Who am I talking to?
[Barbara hangs up]

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