Well I guess a lot of you, like me, would say ‘nothing’ straight up. It’s quite an honest answer because after all how many times have you chatted to a business associate or the like over the phone and then had to double take when you actually finally meet them? Exactly. A name, a voice doesn’t tell too much very often. However we do make certain assumptions based on these two facts, two sometimes rather shaky ‘facts’ too.
I know we’re meant to be talking about talking to someone on a phone line but let’s add in names for a moment. We assume that people are going to be a from a certain ethnic group or geographic region based on surnames, McDonald, O’Reilley and Patel are all going to be sending little clues buzzing to your brain cells. And we rue the day when we have to meet or talk to someone called Robin or Terry or Ashley. Even the fairly ubiquitous Jan can sometimes catch you out. I guess people and life are both sometimes slightly more complicated and less straight forward than we bargain on.
Now voices. You pick up the phone or eventually get through to someone rather than the modern robotic switch board operator and you want to know who they are and what they look like. This is probably the biggest reason why video telephone will catch on. The biggest reason why it won’t is because although we have insatiable curiousity about other people we don’t want people to know what we look like. We’d have to get properly dressed, put our makeup on and style our hair by a reasonable hour just in case the phone rang. No more duvet days and no more days where feeling like death warmed up means you can get away with looking like a mess.
Sometimes you have to phone organisations on a regular basis and you can get a fairly good idea just where their call centre is based because of the ‘accent’. When virtually everybody answers the phone with the same accent you can usually rely on narrowing down their geographic location. There are four main options that occur: Scotland, up North (this is a vague definition which sometimes means anywhere from Birmingham onwards), rest of the UK and India. I can’t think of a single call centre I’ve had to call that’s been based in Wales for some reason. Or Northern Ireland. Strange.
But what does an accent tell you about a person? It doesn’t even confirm that they were born in that area, they could have moved there later in life and picked up the accent, the way that smells cling to your clothes. So not a lot.
You may detect a slight sense of humour or you may feel that they are more helpful or understanding than average but you probably aren’t anywhere near ‘knowing’ the person in question, being able to describe their personality or being able to pick them out of a crowd. So ‘nothing’ still seems to be a fairly reliable answer.
Imagine my shock, shock I think is the best word, as I was somewhat surprised, amused and bemused by someone pronouncing that I ‘sound small’.
I’m not sure if I should take this as a slight. I’m not particularly touchy about my height which is rather fortunate as several generations of teenagers have used me as a benchmark for being tall. They usually reach my height at about the age of twelve or thirteen which they find highly amusing. By fifteen or sixteen they’re giving me a crick in the neck. I don’t see being vertically challenged as a problem. I have a long handled wooden spoon in the kitchen which enables me to open the window and reach things off the highest shelves. I’m also a dab hand at climbing supermarket shelves. Besides which I have the distinguished privilege of being one of the tallest people in my maternal family. Or maybe that should be dubious.
So yes, I am aware of being ‘small’ or ‘short’ or as the school librarian used to phrase it when struggling with high shelves ‘vertically challenged’. I wasn’t aware however that I sounded a certain way because of it. Not least over the phone to someone I’ve never talked to before. Have you ever been able to make a snap judgement on someone’s feet and inches just by hearing their voice? I haven’t. Not unless the voice appears to be a good couple of feet above my head and there’s no obvious elevation around, now that’s rare, isn’t it?
I sound small. I asked my dearest beloved for his opinion on this matter. His reply I have to admit was very fast, for him especially, and slick. He said ‘yeah, tell them that you’re three foot six with the attitude of a seven footer’. Thanks darling.