Who's on the phone? They know in South; Caller ID more popular with Southerners than in other regions of country


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The South might summon up an image of friendly front porches and "welcome y'all" openness.

But Southerners don't take kindly to phone calls disturbing them at home.

More so than other Americans, Carolinians and other Southerners have Caller ID so they know who's calling before picking up, a new study says.

And now BellSouth is offering a way to check calls without moving a muscle -- the caller's number pops right up on the TV screen. "The ultimate couch potato's telephone gift," spokeswoman Hope Lanier said. More than 800,000 Carolinas households have Caller ID, the phone firm's most popular optional feature.

While 15 percent of American homes and businesses pay for Caller ID, nearly 18 percent do in Charleston. The call-screening feature is slightly more popular than average in Charlotte, Columbia, Greensboro and Raleigh, the study's author said.

The main reason people get Caller ID is what you'd expect: to sidestep telemarketers intruding on dinner to hawk another credit card or some other unwanted product, or to ask for money.

Polite avoidance

John Shelton Reed, a sociologist and expert on the South at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, suspects Caller ID is a polite way to avoid unwelcome conversations.

"We may feel we need to talk to any darn fool who calls up," he said. "This may be a way to avoid hanging up on them."

"I've occasionally wished I had Caller ID," added Reed, who's surprised by the study. "Even telemarketers, I hate to hang up on them. I try to explain I'm not interested, but they have all these canned responses so I end up having to hang up on them anyway."

The service is more popular among less well-off people with less schooling, the study says.

"There's a lot going on behind these consumer patterns," said marketing analyst Michael Weiss, a contributing editor to American Demographics magazine whose study was published recently in Atlantic Monthly. While richer folks with more education increasingly use e-mail on their home computers to communicate, poorer people stick to the lower-tech telephone and add relatively inexpensive services such as Caller ID and Call Waiting, Weiss said.

The technology is getting even more convenient, for a price.

By buying a $99.96 unit and plugging it into their TV like a cable box, BellSouth customers with both Caller ID and Call Waiting Deluxe can see caller information on the screen.

There's no extra charge, other than that for regular Caller ID service, which runs $6 a month. Deluxe service, which lists the caller's name as well as number, costs $7 a month.

More popular in homes

Homes use Caller ID more often than businesses; the service is most popular among black and Hispanic families. In the nine Southern states served by BellSouth, nearly half of black households and 54 percent of Hispanic ones subscribe, the study says.

Overall in those nine states, 39 percent of its residential customers get Caller ID, BellSouth says. That figure is 26 percent in North Carolina and 36 percent in South Carolina.

Weiss surmises some Hispanic families screen calls because they want to know if it's a friend or relative so they can speak Spanish or whether it's a business or government agency they can call back when someone more fluent in English is home.

That helps explain why Caller ID is so common along the Mexican border. For example, Laredo, Texas, where nearly 20 percent of business and residential customers subscribe, has the highest use of all 212 U.S. media markets.

Another factor: People tend to add phone features when they move, and most are relocating to the Southeast and Southwest.

Caller ID use is lower in the Northeast and the Great Plains. The lowest: Glendive, Mont., where 10.8 percent of homes and businesses have the service.

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