MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do We Answer The Phone By Saying “Hello”?

Most folks prefer to not talk on the telephone, they’d rather text. But pretty much everyone who does answer the phone to talk says the same thing: “Hello”! The fact that hello remains the favored way to start a phone conversation was definitely not the first choice of the telephone’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. He wanted people to answer the phone by saying “ahoy”. So WHY do we say “hello” when answering the phone?

The first written example of the word “hello”, itself, appeared in print in an issue of Connecticut’s Norwich Courier in 1826: “Hello, Jim! I’ll tell you what: I’ve a sharp knife & feel as if I’d like to cut up something or other.” In that & most of the other instances from that era, “hello” was used to either flag someone down (a lot like we might holler “Hey!” nowadays) or to express surprise. But it took a couple of decades for people to start using it as a greeting.

By the late 1800s, “hello” saw big a boom in popularity thanks to a guy you may have heard of named Thomas Edison. Edison actually gets the credit for insisting that the word “hello” be the greeting of choice for anyone answering a telephone call. But not because he just liked the word. Initially, Thomas Edison didn’t think a telephone needed to ring at all. He believed the caller could simply shout “hello” to the person on the other end in order to get their attention. (At that time, though, people were basically a room or two apart.)

Then, as the technology evolved to become more than just a single, always-open direct line between two people (and at greater distances), it made the most sense for the receiver to be the first to speak (as opposed to the caller). And thanks in large part to Edison’s influence, hot-off-the-presses telephone operating manuals began advising users to say “hello” when answering a call. The very first phone book, published in 1878 in New Haven, CT, recommended a “firm & cheery ‘hulloa’.” Meanwhile, instead of goodbye, they suggested callers sign-off by saying “That is all”.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via Twitter (@AndyWebbRadio), or shoot me an email at andy@wfre.com.

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