Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yupik Telephone Wars

Mid-day, mid-summer 1996, Dillingham, I’m alone at my in-laws house. I’m spending the summer “taking care of things at the house” – code for not fishing – the phone rings and I decide to take a stand.
“Hello,” I say.
Long pause.
“Who’s this?” the gruff response.
“Who’s this,” I’m standing firm.
Long pause.
“Is this Joe and Molly’s house?”
“Yes,” I reply.
Long pause. They persist.
“Who’s this?”
“OK look,” I muster all the patience and grace I can find, “you called me so I think you should tell me who you are first.”
That wasn’t so bad. I was firm but polite. My internal dialogue affirmed me.
They hung up! They hung up because I was asking for the common courtesy of knowing who I was talking to? I can’t believe they just hung up!
A moment later – ring, ring, ring.
“Hello,” I answer with trepidation.
Long pause.
“Who’s this?” says the same voice.
Well, now I’ve had it! I try to remain calm but am determined that this is where it ends.
“OK, this is Denise, but you’ve called me so I’d really like to know who I’m speaking to. Who is this?”
Long pause.
“Is Joe or Molly there?”
“No, who is –“
I spend the remainder of the day angry at whoever it was. You see this was the umpteenth in a long line of many, many phone calls during which the first portion of that conversation happened – and it was not all the same person. The phone would ring, I would answer – politely, if I do say so myself – and immediately would hear “who’s this?” I would tell the caller, “this is Denise, Joe and Molly’s daughter-in-law,” give them whatever information they were requesting regarding the whereabouts of my in-laws and then, without even saying good bye, much less telling me who they were, they would just hang up!
So, as the determined young woman that I was – the proud owner of a college degree in communications I might add – I had to draw a line! Romantic missionary novels about brave young women enduring the hardships of the cold North spurred me on. Perhaps this was my mission, I thought. I was sent here to elevate the Yupik population by helping them better their communication skills!
Yes. I really was that ridiculous. Commence feeling sorry for Gary – I sure do, looking back!
I am more than a bit embarrassed to say I continued my God-given quest towards the betterment of Yupik telephone communication skills throughout the entire summer of 1996. Upon seeing the end of my summer mission approaching whilst – I got the “whilst” in! –having no measureable success toward my goal, I decided it was time to change my method. I would simply speak to the person on the opposite end of the line as if I did know who they were.
I would say, “Hello,” and “how are you this lovely afternoon?” and I when I sensed the hang up coming, I would rush in a “goodbye.” I maintained this approach throughout the remainder of my summer.
Still I observed no measureable results. Well, that’s not entirely true. Actually there was a steady decrease in the number of phone calls I received. In fact, by the end of the summer, I don’t recall having to answer the phone much, if any. But I’m sure that was as a result of unrelated factors. People had fish to process, moose hunting to plan, midnight sun to enjoy; make no mistake, those Dillinghamites are much too busy to have time to be making phone calls!
Yes. I really was that deluded too!
Fifteen years later, in my favorite spot in Steamdot, I must report the telephone skills of the Yupik people saw no improvement as a result of my summer mission. I, on the other hand, have seen a great deal of growth – THANK GOD! Now, upon receiving a Dillingham phone call things go much differently.
Ring, ring, ring, caller ID shows me this is a Dillingham number, I pick up.
I insert a long pause for good measure.
“Who’s this?” I say, not gruffly but admittedly with a bit of force.
They tell me and proceed.
“Yeah, is Gary there?”
Another long pause is due here and so I wait then say, “No.”
Click. I hang up.


  1. Oh I love it! I love the story and your writing. A BOOK, Denise. A book is in your future! Written by you. :)

  2. Replies
    1. I read your avoiding conflict and went on to read another since I googled avoiding conflict for Native values and you popped up for the first two.

      You are so funny! I know exactly what you are talking about.

      I remember teaching up river and having to figure out who was calling because I wasn't going to admit I didn't recognize their voice.