Speaking the language of ‘ring-cut’

Mihrini Sirisena, University of Edinburgh, DEepartment of Anthopology

Spanning eleven months spread between 2007 and 2008, I conducted fieldwork for my PhD thesis among university students in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the focus of my research rested on romantic relationships. During this time, one fine Sunday afternoon in mid-March, I noticed that I had missed a call from Padmika. Padmika is a young man in the first year of university and is full of youthful energy and enthusiasm.  I had already spoken with him once. Our first conversation flowed easily from talking about his activity filled university life to his past relationships. Padmika did not see himself in a relationship in the near future and was forthcoming about his past relationships and his views and ideas about relationships. I had left that conversation open, telling him to contact me if he felt the need to talk. Thinking that Padmika had accepted that invitation, I phoned him back and was surprised when he disconnected the call. On my third attempt, he answered and took me by surprise by saying: “oh akka, I was just giving you a missed call. I remembered you (matak vunā) and thought I would give you a missed call to let you know.” Though bewildered first, I was quickly engulfed in a child-like enthusiasm as I realised that I had become a part of that world I hesitantly entered, and that though unwittingly, I had been initiated into the language of missed calls.

During my fieldwork, I noticed that references to ‘ring-cut’ or ‘missed calls’ speckled everyday exchanges in all forms of relationships. Often used interchangeably, this referred to telephoning a person one wishes to be in touch with, yet rather than waiting for the person at the other end to answer the phone, disconnects the line. Thus, ‘ringing’ and ‘cutting’ or disconnecting is what happens, literally. These telephone calls are registered on the call log of the phone as ‘missed calls.’ This exchange of ‘ring-cuts’ is facilitated by the advent of caller identification, where the recipients are alerted to the persons who have called them, when they were not in a position to answer the phone. Neither the caller nor the recipient gets charged in this exchange.

Since my encounter with Padmika, I noted how often references to missed calls dotted our conversations, given when something triggered off a thought of someone close. Essentially, ring-cuts were exchanged between those who were considered near and dear and gained a special significance among lovers as this was deemed as a means through which the lovers let each other know that they were thinking about each other, when they are not with each other.  Hishani, for instance, like my most other research participants, said that loving someone is like carrying them with you; insignificant mundane acts such as eating, hearing a song or something you do, see, somewhere you go, gain significance as these may remind you of that person that you are carrying around. When you think of the person, it is important to let them know as, through informing them, you are reminding them of the place they occupy in your life and you in their lives. With missed calls, my research participants told me, they reached out and let the near and the dear know that they were thinking of them.

Missed calls served other uses as well. For instance, Hishani told me that if she gives three or four missed calls during the day, her boyfriend phones her back to talk to her. These were implicit terms of engagement, that were personal and intimate, and made sense only to those who were involved. If I were to elaborate these terms of engagement using Hishani’s relationship as an example, Hishani told me that it is mostly her boyfriend who bears the cost of phone calls as he is better off financially, in comparison to her. When she wants to talk to him, she asks him to call her by giving him a missed call. At the same time, both Hishani and her boyfriend use missed calls to let each other know that they are thinking of each other. To differentiate between a missed call given to let the other know that she/he is thinking of them and a request for a call, Hishani and her boy friend use the number of times the phone rings. Sayuri, exposing yet another layer of meaning of missed calls, told me that her boyfriend would give her a missed call around lunchtime, when he is about to have lunch, to let her know that he is having lunch, so, that though they are not in the same place, they would have lunch together, at the same time, if she were free to do so.

As for me, I did not quite master the language of missed calls and kept faltering, expecting my research participants to answer when they did not intend to. To this day, I have not managed to decipher the finer details and different motives driving the missed calls I received during the fieldwork year. What the language of ‘ring-cuts’ pointed out to me, however, is a need to look closely at the currents that spiral out from the use of mobile phones. Though it appears at first as empty of content, missed calls or ring-cuts point are embedded in layers and layers of meaning, which could not be grasped without a deeper engagement, for that meaning is contextual and personal. It is in this adaptability of the language of ‘ring-cut’ that lies its appeal. The ‘ring-cut’ elaborates the creative ways in which its users engage with mobile technology.

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