The Enigma of the South Asian ‘Miss Call’

It’s amazing what people are doing with mobile phones in South Asia. And I’m not talking about mobile banking or anything as sophisticated as that – I mean the language of the miss call, a means of communication which requires you to spend absolutely no money on your phone whatsoever.

A miss call can be used in a variety of ways – as a pre-arranged signal between two people (i.e. I will miss call you when I’ve finished the work), to get one person to call you back when you don’t have any credit, or as a signal that you are thinking of someone. It can be used in a similar way to the ambiguous facebook ‘poke’. It can also be a means of flirting, especially in cultures where there is a high level of gender segregation, like in parts of Bihar and the Tarai. This type of flirtatious miss call is a close cousin of the prank call/wrong number wallah call, also the preserve of bored young men, but is subtly different (see this post). The former is cheeky and generally harmless, the latter can be genuinely menacing and uncomfortable.

This Bhojpuri song is a nice illustration of a certain type of miss call culture, although in real life I think that frustrated young men are doing a lot more of the miss call-ing than girls. Here, a shameless Bihari girl in leggings is miss call-ing a guy, who knows that when a woman calls and then hangs us, it Can Only Mean One Thing.

The key thing with miss calls is that they have agreed-upon meanings between two people or within a subculture. A problem arises when you’re from outside that subculture and don’t know what the signals mean.

In rural Nepal it seems to be correct phone etiquette to let it ring four or five times before picking up so that you can be sure whether it was a miss call call or one that you should actually answer. But how do you know the difference between a missed call that you are supposed to reply to and one that is just an I’m thinking of you call, or indeed that kind of miss call?ย  I mean, you wouldn’t want to ignore someone that was actually trying to get hold of you, but you also wouldn’t want to give out the wrong signal to that sleazy guy you once met in an internet cafe in Biratnagar who claims to have his own conflict resolution NGO and keeps calling and hanging up (‘wow! she must be easy- she called me right back!’).

The missed call phenomenon is so widespread in the developing world that there have been numerous academic and commercial studies on it – see this article for one example. There is also a plethora of regional songs about missed calling – like this gem from Punjab. What a naughty kudi


6 Responses to “The Enigma of the South Asian ‘Miss Call’”

  1. i was out of that subculture for a while. i pick up the call and my friend yells at me, “Why did you pick up? I was giving you a miss call!!!” hmmm…i still pick up my calls immediately though! ๐Ÿ˜›

  2. Now I know I should have been born in Darbhanga.

    I think you’ll like the song above:

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