All Stories, General Fiction

Compromising Phone Calls by Robert McGee

I try hard not to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but some of the things Germans do are just wrong. Over the years I’ve learned to tolerate all manner of behaviors that made my younger self uncomfortable: people shaking hands in non-professional contexts, people not smiling when they say hello, people not knowing how to wait in lines, et cetera. I’ve even adopted a few behaviors that would strike many Americans as odd: I bag my own groceries, I don’t tip unless the person actually deserves it, and I can listen to political opponents without wanting them dead.

But I refuse to answer the phone by telling the caller my name.

What the Germans fail to understand is that answering the phone at home is not so different from answering the door. When I am in my pajamas, under a blanket, with a bottle of bourbon close at hand, and hear a knock at the door, I don’t answer it and say, “Here is Rob.” And I shouldn’t be expected to answer the phone that way either.

A short ‘Hello’ is more than sufficient. A terse ‘Who’s calling?’ is forgivable, and a curt ‘What do you want?’ is, honestly, forgivable.

Those who disturb the peace of a man in flannel pajamas should tread carefully: say hi to be nice, state a name and business, and then let him decide if the conversation is worth having.

Don’t be surprised if it’s not.

The Germans don’t think this way, however. They simply have to know who they are speaking to at the very beginning of the conversation — even if who they are speaking to is completely irrelevant to that conversation.

I’ve had versions of this phone encounter many times (in German, of course) and they have never failed to annoy me.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Umm, hello?” There was an awkward reticence on the other side. “Is Sandra available?”

“No, I’m sorry. Sandra is working late tonight. She’ll be home around seven o’clock. Can I take a message?” I said, which was amazingly polite considering I was no longer under a blanket.

“Who am I talking to?”

“You called me.” I held the phone away from my head and looked at it incredulously,        shaking my head. “I can give Sandra a message if you’d like. Or, you can call back after seven.”

“But who is this?”

At this point my patience evaporated — not unlike the heat from my blanket — and derision set in. “Do you know everyone that might answer the phone at Sandra’s house?”

“No.” She sounded defeated.

“Well, then, I don’t see how knowing my name will help. So, how about you tell    Sandra you left a message with Barack Obama. That’s pretty cool, right? A president. Do you have a message for the Commander in Chief?”

“I’ll call back later.” There might have been some disgust in her voice.

I hoped it wasn’t because she was racist. “OK. Have a good night. Don’t forget to   vote.”

So, considering my dislike for how the Germans handled phones, I wasn’t terribly understanding when my German daughter asked for one of her own. “Absolutely not,” I said. “You don’t even know how to answer one.” And the conversation ended there.

For a while.


Sandra and I were preparing dinner and chatting about how our classes were going when Emma came in. She sat down next to Sandra and asked if she could help grate cheese.

“I’m almost done,” Sandra said, “but you can stir the vegetables on the stove if you want to help.”

With a nod, Emma picked herself off the chair and went to the stove. The three of us cut, grated, stirred, and listened to The Rolling Stones.

After a few moments of stirring, Emma broke the silence. “Dad, can you stir these vegetables?”

“Do you want to cut this bread?”


“Then carry on, my wayward daughter,” I said. “There will be peas when you are done,” I sang.

Sandra groaned in the background. I glanced over just in time to catch a half smile and an eye roll. When I turned back to Emma, she was crying. She put the wooden spoon down and ran out of the kitchen.

“What was that about?” Sandra asked.

“No idea. I assume it wasn’t my singing, though.”

“Should we go talk to her?”

“Nah. You know how she is. Let her cry it out for a bit. We can see what’s up at dinner. It’s almost ready anyway.”

A short while later we sat the table and called the kids in. David came in first. “What are we having?”

“Tuna casserole with cheesy garlic bread.”

“Can I have something else?”

“This isn’t a restaurant, kiddo.” I lowered my eyes and nodded towards his chair. He sat down. I poured him a glass of milk and planted a little kiss on top of his blond head, ruffling his hair with my free hand as I turned back to the refrigerator. Emma dragged herself in and took her place, eyes red but no longer leaking.

“Emma, honey, why were you crying earlier?”  Sandra asked.

“Because of the kids at school.”

My dad-instinct had been piqued. “What did they do?” I asked.

“After class one of the boys went around and got everyone’s cell phone number for a class group and I was the only kid who didn’t have a phone.”

“Really? The only one?” Sandra asked.

“Yeah. Everyone has one. They get to talk about homework and stuff and I can’t. It’s not fair.”

“Why do they have phones already? You kids are too young for phones.” Sandra said.

“I don’t know, but everyone has one.” Emma answered. “I need one, too.”

“No,” Sandra said. “You don’t need one. None of you need one.”

Emma poked at her food and didn’t answer.

David took advantage of the silence and steered the conversation towards French children’s stories. His kindergarten teacher had started a project to teach the kids some basic French vocabulary and since he had learned a handful of those words, he thought he was fluent and was proud of that fact. The phone conversation was forgotten for the time being.

After dinner, Sandra and I split up the kids per our routine: I made sure Emma had brushed her teeth and then read to her from the book we were working on, and Sandra did the same with David.

After shuffling Emma off to bed, and giving David a good-night kiss, I joined Sandra in the living room with the first of my nightly beers in my hand.

“So, what should we do about Emma?” Sandra asked.

“I don’t know.” I sat down next to her and she threw her legs over mine. “It’s a pretty shitty dilemma.”

“I don’t think so. She’s ten years old. She doesn’t need a phone.” She shrugged her shoulders dismissively.

“I tend to agree, but I can see the appeal. There have been times when I wished she had one — like that time a few months back when I freaked out when she didn’t come home from school. I was one phone call away from calling the police, when —”

“That was bad, but still. She’s ten.” She flung her legs off of mine and came in for an upper-body cuddle. “Besides, a phone wouldn’t help your anxiety anyway. You always find excuses to get nervous.”

“Point.” I took a swig of my beer. “But, if it’s like she said, and all the kids have one, that changes things.”

“No, it doesn’t.” She looked up at me like I was crazy.

“It does. After kids get phones, that’s how they organize their lives. And the kids who aren’t part of that world get phased out.”

“But phones are horrible for children. The research coming in all points in the same direction.”

“I know. I’ve read it, too, but still —”

“Maybe we should mention how bad phones are at the next parent’s meeting. Maybe we could encourage them to take the phones away from their kids.”

I looked down at her like she was the crazy one. “Good idea. Parents love it when elite university snobs like us show up and tell them that they are raising their kids wrong.”

“Well, they are.”

“The truth won’t save you, my love.” I lowered my head and then brought it back up for a drink.

“Then what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know. We need a compromise of some sort. We can’t be so clinical about something that makes her cry.”

We talked it through for a few more minutes and came up with a plan we could both live with.


After dinner the next day, we called Emma into the living room. She sat in the corner chair, rather than squeezing in between Sandra and I on the sofa as I had expected.

“OK, baby girl,” I said, “your mom and I talked about you getting a phone and here’s what we’ve decided. For now, we are not going to get you a phone.”

She exhaled and slumped into the chair.

I ignored her and went on. “The research is pretty clear: smart phones are terrible for the mental development of children — they are entirely too distracting. I see it all the time with my students. Some of them can’t even pay attention to me for a whole class without checking their phones. Me.” I extended my hands to emphasize the point, lighten the mood, but she wasn’t impressed. “A phone can ruin your ability to concentrate, so you can’t have one.”

Her shoulders slumped further and she looked at her feet.

“But,” I continued, “we also know that young people today essentially live online and kids who aren’t part of that online world, get left out — and that would be bad for your social life. We don’t want that, either.”

She looked up.

“So,” I went on, “here’s our idea. You can create an account on my phone and use it to snap-chat or chap-shat or whatever you kids do these day.”

“But I can’t take your phone to school,” she said.

“True. And you’re not going to have a phone at school for quite some time. But, instead of watching TV after school, you can have some phone time — or a little of both if you wish. Mix it up: chap a shat and then watch some cartoons.”

“I don’t know,” she said looking back down at her shoes.

“Think about it,” I said. “This is as good as it will get for a while.”

The next morning at breakfast Emma came into the kitchen looking more optimistic than the day previous. “Is it true what you said yesterday about your students not being able to concentrate?” she said.

“Yeah. I might have exaggerated a bit, but yeah.”

“So, they can’t, like, read a book for a while without checking their phone?”

“Some of them can’t, no.”

“I don’t want that. I like reading.”

“That’s smart of you.”

“So, can I give them your number for the homework group?”

“Sure. You don’t even have to tell them it’s my number if you don’t want to.”

“OK.” She took a bite of her yogurt. “Dad?”

“Daughter?” I raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know how long that will work for.”

She was right. Our obstinance to the new culture wouldn’t be a realistic parenting strategy for long. We could probably hold out for a few more years, but at a certain point we’d have to give in so that she wouldn’t suffer socially. It was a fight we couldn’t win.

I sat down at the table and sipped my coffee.

And if it was true for German kids, it was also true for Germans in general. It wasn’t fair of me to expect them to accept a hello as a phone greeting. I couldn’t change their culture any more than my daughter could change hers. So, if I didn’t want to be continually annoyed, I’d have to change how I answered the phone when I was in my pajamas.

I still refuse to answer with my name but, in an effort to mitigate the discomfort on the other end of the line, I now answer with other names. A nom de téléphone, my son’s teacher might say. Sometimes I’m a president. Sometimes I’m a rock star. And sometimes I’m a character in a book.

Anything is possible when people call the house looking for Sandra.


Robert McGee

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3 thoughts on “Compromising Phone Calls by Robert McGee”

  1. Hi Robert,
    I really did enjoy this.
    I hate phones and I hate what they do to people. Or should that be what people let them do to them!?
    I am proud to say that I have never owned one.
    This was wry and with the compromising logic that I reckon a lot of parents will understand. (Not that I am one so maybe my last comment is redundant!!)
    A well observed and skillful piece of writing.


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