Ringtones are a kind of window into the soul, when you think about it. If you’re with a person and their cellphone rings, for that brief moment you are getting a glimpse of some personal information about that individual.
For many people, including me, their ringtone is the default option chosen by the phone’s manufacturer. For my iPhone 4, it’s called the “opening” ringtone — that vaguely Caribbean, quasi-steel drum trill that everyone has heard thousands of times but is so common and generic that people don’t really notice it anymore. If someone’s cell phone uses the default option, you can reasonably conclude that the owner views the phone as a pesky, purely functional tool and hasn’t done anything to experiment with it or customize it to their tastes.
Then there are people who have rejected the default option, but choose a ringtone from the alternatives offered by the phone manufacturer. My iPhone offers dozens of options, from dogs barking to ducks quacking to angelic harps to psychedelic snippets. One of my friends uses the “trill” ringtone, which sounds like the noise Fred Flintstone made when he bowled on tippy-toes. I asked if he was a big fan of the Man from Bedrock, but he says he chose it because it’s easier for him to hear. It’s fair to infer that people who have gone beyond the default option but stayed within the manufacturer’s menu are comfortable with technology, intrigued by the different choices, and like playing around with their phones.
What about the people who’ve downloaded ringtones from the internet? I often notice this in cabs, where I’ve been startled by driver ringtones that are a wild blast of foreign music or sound like a snippet from a sermon in an unknown tongue. Those cabbies are making a statement — they’re in their taxis all day, they routinely take calls with passengers in the back seat, and there’s not much privacy. They don’t care if you hear their rings or their conversations, which usually are muttered in another language, anyway. Their ringtones are a way to stay connected to their native lands or their religions.
And finally there are the folks who have customized their ringtones so that different sounds are associated with different callers. I was in a meeting recently where another attendee got a call and the ringtone was a portion of a Led Zeppelin song. He explained that he had a different ringtone for his wife and each of his kids, and that was the one for his daughter. Interesting, I thought, but I couldn’t imagine spending the time to figure out how to do that, then pick the right song, then download it from the internet into my phone. Either that guy had a lot of time on his hands — or he got one of his kids to do it for him.