It happens all the time. You're just sitting down to a nice dinner or just settling in to watch your favorite TV show, and the phone rings. “Hi! I'm So-and-So from Such-and-Such and I'd like to tell you about this-and-that.” Frustrated and angry at the unsolicited interruption, you make some comment about the caller's parentage either just before or just after you slam down the phone, your mood ruined and your blood pressure elevated by several points. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Now, I don't have any foolproof way of keeping such calls from occurring. I've tried signing up for the so-called “do not call” lists, but I still get calls. However, I employ a method that makes the experience more fun and more satisfying. I speak Italian.
Nearly everybody has some form of caller ID these days. You recognize the numbers of your friends and relatives, but it's those strange or “unknown” numbers that make you go “hmmm.” Especially if there's an “800” or an “888” involved. You know if you don't answer the phone, they'll probably just call back, so you suck it up and pick it up. But here's how to have some fun with it.
Instead of “hello,” say, “Pronto! Chi parla?” This is the most common way of answering a phone in Italy. It literally means, “Ready! Who is speaking?” I admit this greeting may be a little odd to the American ear, but consider that if Alexander Graham Bell had had his way, we'd all be answering the phone with, “Ahoy! Ahoy!” So just accept the cultural difference and move on.
A nice, cheery, “Ciao!” also works, as if you were expecting a call from a friend. This has the added benefit of covering your butt in case the caller is somebody you really wanted to talk to. Your mother calling from somebody else's phone will just chalk it up to eccentricity on your part.
But if it's a telemarketer, hearing anything other than “hello” will probably slow them down quite a bit. Not trying to be ugly here, but let's be honest; many of the people making these annoying, intrusive calls do not inhabit the higher branches of the tree, if you know what I mean. They have their little scripts all written out in front of them and if the conversation doesn't start the way the script says it should......well, they get a bit flustered. Most of the time, “Pronto! Chi parla?” will be met with a moment of confused silence. That's usually when I'll take advantage of the confusion and amp it up by either repeating the phrase or throwing in “Salve?,” which is Italian for “hello.” The truly timid telemarketer will, at this point, abandon the call.
If you get an intrepid one who soldiers on, your next line of defense is, “Mi dispiace. Non capisco.” Don't worry, you're not saying anything dirty. It's just, “I'm sorry. I don't understand.” Repeat this until they hang up, which usually won't take very long. I get tenacious callers now and then who try to ask, “Is there anyone there who speaks English?” At which point I respond, “Inglese? No. No inglese.” One time the caller whispered to somebody nearby, “They don't speak English. What do I do now?” The answer, of course, was to abruptly terminate the call. I did get a smart cookie once who asked me if I spoke Spanish. All it took was, “Spagnolo? Non parlo spagnolo” to end that call.
I suppose I'll get caught someday by somebody just off the plane from Rome or whose mother was from Naples, but it hasn't happened yet. And in the meantime, listening to these people as they stutter and sputter in utter confusion – my, wasn't that a line worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan? – is really great entertainment. They're messing with your day, so why shouldn't you mess with theirs a little?
This approach will likely not work with Spanish. Goodness knows, more people in the United States speak Spanish now than they do English, so attempting to confuse a telemarketer with Spanish will probably only hook you up with a Spanish-speaking telemarketer. But so far, Italian telemarketers are few and far between. The same is true, I'm sure, if you know a few words of French or German or Japanese or maybe even Latin. In fact, a lot of computer-generated spam calls are programmed to make the connection after you say “hello.” If you don't say “hello,” they don't complete the call. But where's the fun in that?
So the next time your phone rings at the worst possible moment and you highly suspect a spam caller, don't be angry or mean and don't be upset. Be nice, be friendly, be Italian!