16 October 2009

Please Hang Up and Dial Again

Last night’s Office had an unusually large number of people hanging up the phone on other people, which meant it had an unusually large number of dial tones signaling to an audience that a character has hung up.

In real life, of course, if someone hangs up the phone on you, you don’t hear anything. That’s why you’re not sure the other person has hung up. If you keep talking for several minutes on end, a recorded voice will tell you to hang up and then emphasize that point with an annoying rhythmic sound. But there’s never a dial tone.

This odd fact about life in the movies and TV was noted over a decade ago by David N. Townsend, and discussed at Movie Clichés, TV Forum, Ask Metafilter, and elsewhere.

Since then, cell phones have become ubiquitous, and, as some of those websites point out, movie sound designers now often supply dial tones for cell phones. That sound signals us viewers that a character’s phone is operational. In real life, our own cell phones don’t make that sound at all, even if they are operational.

And we accept these cinematic conventions despite the fact that any American who’s watching a movie or TV has plenty of experience in how a telephone really works.


Anonymous said...

Two more occurred to me right away (I see the first one is mentioned in the "Movie Clichés" link you referenced):
On the screen, when a person suspects that they've been cut off, the first thing they do is to pump the hook switch rapidly up and down several times. Who does that in real life? All it would accomplish is to ensure that the call is cut off if it wasn't before.

On the screen, everybody has only one cell phone ring tone: brrrring! You'd think that ring tones would be varied to suggest something about the character. It's as though all the characters in the story dressed exactly the same.

J. L. Bell said...

Back when there were actual live telephone operators, pumping the hook switch would make a light blink on the switchboard, so the operator would come on. Then you could say, “Operator, we’ve been cut off!” So that action did make sense—many decades ago.

Good point about most movie cell phone rings also lagging behind real life. Though there was an episode of The Office built around Andy’s annoying ringtone. I suppose that using a cliché “cell phone ring” spares us viewers half a second of thinking, “What’s that sound? Oh, it must be someone’s cell phone. Is it my cell phone? Did I really pick ‘Take On Me’ as a ringtone?”