Saturday, March 20, 2021

Still Life with Robin: Old Dialing Habits Die Hard


Telephone Booth
New Orleans
Wikimedia Commons
by Peggy Robin

I’ve been mulling over the report, posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv on March 8 (Message #171076  ) that DC will be getting a new area code. It’s 771. The poster who announced this impending change said that starting on April 10 we're supposed to transition to dialing 202 or 771 to make calls within DC, and this will become mandatory starting on November 9.

To which another list member immediately replied (I'm paraphrasing here): "Whaaaah???! You mean I all this time I've been dialing ten digits, I would have been fine with seven? I thought we've had ten-digit dialing for decades!!!"

I have to admit, so did I. Back in the olden days, -- when there were far fewer phones to connect to -- you could dial someone in the Maryland ‘burbs with just 7 digits; you didn’t need the 301. Dialing ten digits only became necessary if you were trying to reach someone as far away as Baltimore (410). On the Virginia side of the Potomac (703), I really have no idea how far you could go on your seven digits, because all my friends and family in the Metro area were either in the District proper or just a few miles over the line at Western Avenue.

With the help of Google, I found out that it was in 1990 when they first made us start dialing 301 and 703 to reach our friends in contiguous states. Here’s some history—along with some local color about longtime residents and their loyalty to their area codes – in a very informative article from WAMU:

My own takeaway from this article is a sense of regret to learn that for so many years, I could been saving precious seconds punching in just seven numbers when calling within for in-town dialing. I just tested it out by dialing the weather, 589-1212, and sure enough, the call went through without a hitch -- no 202 needed. But it’s too late for me to un-learn the 10-digit dialing habit now! Not worth the effort, because we’ll just have to go back to ten-digit dialing once that new 771 area code comes into use.

Anyway, consider all the times that you don’t have to do more than push a single button. Come to think of it, that’s most of the time, these days. I can hardly remember the last time I actually punched in all ten numbers into my keypad. Those I call frequently are in my cellphone under “favorites” and all I need to do is touch a name to start a call. When people call me and leave a message, I just hit “call back.” When I don’t know someone’s number, I can look it up on my smartphone and then touch the number to start a call. That’s not going to change when a new area code comes in.

The only thing I expect to happen is that some people will feel a sentimental attachment to the old 202 area code, and will feel dismayed if they need a new number and get one that starts with 771. There could even be some 202 snobbery: People with 202 numbers may look down upon newbies whose number begin with 771. Why would I assume this? Because that’s exactly what happened when New York City – 212 from the Dawn of the Age of Area Codes – first acquired a second area code, 917, back in 1992. People who had the “classic” 212 were glad they weren’t stuck with 917. Sometimes people who had to change their number would try to wriggle out of a 917 number, and even pay extra for a 212. Seven years later when 646 was introduced, you had both 212 AND 917 phone owners looking down upon those upstarts with 646. Think I’m making this up? Just watch these two clips from an old Seinfeld episode: and    

As soon as 771 comes in, someone oughta do a Tik Tok about 202 versus 771. If you create such a TikTok, please post the link to the CP Listserv! 


"Still Life with Robin" is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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