Hold the line for phone rage

Wanted: a new etiquette to deal with BT's `call waiting' service
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Eve was talking to her sister Madeline when the beeps that signal "call waiting" began. "Ohmygosh, that's probably my agent. Hold on," said Madeline. Eve hung up instead.

When Madeline rang back - evidently the other call was not her agent - her sister was blunt: "If you're going to put me on hold, I'm going to hang up. I hate `call waiting'. You hear a beep, and you say `Hold on'; meanwhile the person is sitting there like a dolt while you decide whether the new call is more important than the old one.

"Do you think I have nothing better to do than hold on? Do you think there is nothing else going on in my life, that I have time to hold on while you deal with your stupid phone calls?"

Does this ring a bell? It may be a scene from fiction - Delia Ephron's Hanging Up, to be exact - but telephone rage is a fact for more than a few of the millions of Britons who encounter "call waiting" every day. British Telecom says that "call waiting" is its second most popular service after "call return" (that's 1471 to you and me). But popular with whom? British Telecom won't say.

Certainly not to those people who cannot bear the idea of interrupting. They hang up the moment they hear the words: "Please hold the line, we are trying to connect you." One woman admitted: "Oh yes, it was me. I just had to hang up. I just can't stand the idea."

Most people do not blush as much as see red, though in Britain, the person who makes the call believes that he or she controls it, psychologists say, and people who think they are in control hate phone limbo. This is the place inhabited not by humans or answering machines but by the voice that assures you: "The caller knows you are waiting". "I cannot stand that!" explodes one caller, and he is not alone.

If one had to rate emotions, anger is above guilt, so spare a thought for the person who hears the beeps. Upon hearing these, he or she must decide whether to interrupt. If they do, caller number one may feel slighted. If they don't, caller number two may be fuming.

Having taken the plunge and decided to interrupt, they then have to figure out how. This is no easy feat with generations of whispers in your ear saying: "Rude, rude, rude." The problem is that the whispers are right. "Call waiting" is the telephone equivalent of looking over somebody's shoulder to see if anyone more interesting is nearby.

This social minefield is not going to go away. The work trend of the Nineties is freelance and "call waiting" is the next best thing to two telephone lines. But is it possible to have good manners and cope with "call waiting"? Do we need a new etiquette on how to interrupt? Oops, before you answer, I've just got someone on the other line. Do you mind holding? I'll be right back...