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Caller: "Hello. Is Jane at home?"

Answerer: "Who wants to know?"

I think I heard this kind of conversation on a TV show once. Probably it was a comedy show. I guess what the answerer meant was "Who are you?" or "Who is asking?" Can I use "Who wants to know?" generally on a phone conversation to know who the caller is? Or was the conversation above a joke?

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    The phrase "Who wants to know?" is intentionally aggressive, brusque, and rude; you are asserting the other person has no right to ask or know unless or until they establish otherwise. I would not recommend it except jocularly when the other person knows you are joking. If an unknown caller asks to speak to someone in your household, the common, polite question is "May I ask who's calling?" or "Who may I tell him (or her) is calling?". – Dan Bron Jan 16 '15 at 13:12
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    @DanBron Or indeed if you happen to be talking to Jimmy Ray. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 16 '15 at 13:15
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    It's also commonly used to deter telemarketers who seem to feel they have the right to talk to someone even when that person has no reason or desire to talk to them. – Nicole Jan 16 '15 at 15:54
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    @Nicole They "seem to think" that because they would like to remain employed. – Casey Jan 16 '15 at 18:04
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    @emodendroket People do react the same way in face-to-face situation; it's just that it's rare to come face-to-face with someone who treats you as a telemarketer does. The only instance I can think of is when those people working in kiosks at the mall jump out in front of people walking by and try to block them there long enough to get through their whole spiel. I've seen people shout and get aggressive at them, because it's often the only way to get them to leave you alone. – Nicole Jan 16 '15 at 21:03
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"Who wants to know?" would normally be said only if you were being pointedly rude. It's a step below swearing at someone, but it's ruder than just ignoring niceties.

Taken at face value, "who wants to know?" is a reasonable enough thing to ask. It ignores the normal polite forms of etiquette, but considering just the bare meaning, we might expect it to be considered no ruder than something like "who's this?" that isn't particularly polite, but isn't explicitly rude either.

But it has acquired much more force, implying "I'm not inclined to tell you" or at least, "I expect you to demonstrate to me why I should tell you, before I do so".

This added forcefulness may well originate in posters like this:


(source: fortmissoulamuseum.org)

Here, "who wants to know" has the very different meaning: Consider who among our enemies would want to know what you are talking about. And then shut-up.

Just as the phrase "loose lips sink ships" entered the language of English-speaking people in Allied countries during World War 2 to mean "keep quiet about things that might have military intelligence value" or by extension, "I'm not going to talk about that", so "who wants to know?" worked at two levels; it both asked the question (maybe, after all, the person who wants to know should indeed be informed) but also referenced the need for secrecy.

And so at the time while it was brusque its position in etiquette is complex; on the one hand it chided ("you shouldn't be asking me") it also excused ("sorry, I'm not being rude in not telling you this").

And when time moved on it retained this underlying implication of not just asking about who was asking, but suggesting "I am not inclined to tell you this". Hence it seems like slightly-dodgy people in television shows are forever responding to opening questions from the police with "who wants to know?" It's a shorthand for the writer; having the character be a bit rude, but not openly aggressive, is intended to lead the audience to suppose that this person is not perfectly law-abiding but leave it open as to whether they are involved in any serious crime.

Similarly, teenage characters will often use it because [lead character makes exaggerated eye-roll to camera] Teenagers! They're so rude!

Whether the WWII saying is the source of this nuance or not, do not use "who wants to know" on answering the phone if you want to be polite.

  • This kind of answer to this kind of question is what makes SE so great. Well done. +1 – Dan Bron Jan 16 '15 at 14:15
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    @DanBron there's treasure everywhere... – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '15 at 14:20
  • @DanBron I think a gap could be filled in between the WWII use and now from noir fiction of the post-war years, but I haven't had any luck finding examples. – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '15 at 14:34
  • Thank you for the answer. [we might expect it to be considered no ruder than just "who's this?"] Does this mean asking "Who's this?" is ruder than "Who wants to know?" – Damn Vegetables Jan 16 '15 at 17:48
  • No, I meant "who's this?" isn't polite, but isn't very rude either, and just by analysing the meaning of the phrase we might expect "who wants to know" to be equally so, rather than being ruder as it is. – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '15 at 17:51
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"Who wants to know?" is somewhat pointed and abrupt.

"Who may I say is calling?" is more polite.

Or, "Who is speaking, please?"

  • +1, or who shall I say is calling? – Misti Jan 16 '15 at 20:44
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"May I ask who is calling?" is more polite, and has the benefit of being non-committal. It doesn't imply that Jane is at home, but leaves the suggestion that perhaps she might be available to the right person.

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