My wife encountered a charming bit of old-style, small-town kiwiana this week. When she rang a kindly woman from whom we’d borrowed a bassinet for our visiting baby grandson, she got the now rarely heard telephone greeting, “Are you there?”
There was a time when this was a common way of answering the phone, but my wife was momentarily taken aback. Though she has lived in New Zealand since 1965, she doesn’t recall ever hearing it before. My guess is that it dates from the days of party lines, when it was normal for several subscribers, particularly in rural areas, to share a common number, but each with a different suffix – 345-D, 345-M and so on. Asking “Are you there?” on picking up the phone may have been a courtesy as well as a precautionary measure to avoid butting in on someone else’s conversation. On the other hand, the very hesitant nature of the greeting suggests it could be a throwback to an even more distant time when people still treated the new-fangled phone as an object of suspicion and were reluctant to believe there could be anyone on the other end.
Thinking about this reminds me that another way of establishing whether a party line was clear was to say “Working?” before proceeding with the call - another splendid old expression that has sadly passed into disuse. We didn’t have a party line at our house, though our exchange (Waipukurau) was one of the last to lose the old manual phones on which you’d crank the handle and an operator would say, “number please”.
Anyway, it was fascinating to discover the old phrase “Are you there?” is so ingrained that some older citizens still use it, and it got me thinking about other quaint Kiwi expressions that are no longer heard. My father was in the habit of saying “right you are, then”, which was a way of expressing agreement, though oddly enough he only ever did it on the phone, never in face-to-face conversation. And when I was a paper boy I had a boss who would say, as I left the office each morning with my bundle of Dominions, “I’ll see you anon” – a Scottish expression, I believe. Corker.
I’m so taken with “are you there?” that I might start using it myself. If it so confuses callers that they hang up, so much the better. I share the view of my late colleague Frank Haden, who used to say phones were for him to ring other people on, not vice-versa.