Telephone Etiquette


I realize I may seem a bit old fashioned, perhaps even like a fogey when I say things like “people need to learn basic etiquette”, but I prefer to think of it as making reparations for a misspent youth. I wasn’t always the most polite person, and what I demand of others is no less than I demand of myself. I also don’t ask for people to do things that seem (at least to me) to be useless relics of a bygone age, such as knowing which fork to use at the dining table or which side of the road to drive on. But there are certain basic courtesies in a modern, connected age that should hold steady if we are to call ourselves civilized.

The one that seems to be most prevalent of late is a lack of basic telephone courtesy. I’d like to blame this on the wide-spread use of cell phones, but I’ve been aware of it since I was a kid, mostly because it was the only kind of courtesy my parents could seem to drill into me. It transcends generations and class boundaries, so that can’t be it either. It almost seems as if somewhere along the line there was a breakdown in passing this knowledge along, a failure to communicate, if you will. I’d like to take it upon myself to rectify that by laying out some basic rules for modern phone communication.

Identify yourself. Don’t assume I have caller ID, or that I used it. The fact is, I might have several people listed under that number, or I might not even have you listed. Also, some numbers are blocked. If nothing else, I might think someone else is using your phone. Don’t expect me to recognize your voice right off the bat either. It might be noisy where you are, where I am, or we might have a bad connection. And believe it or not someone else might answer. You don’t want to start talking dirty to my grandma and only find out after she starts talking dirty right back (she’s a naughty one).

Establish the purpose of your call. I might have an hour to talk, or I might only have five minutes. I might have answered the phone because I was expecting a call from someone else (which is another reason to identify yourself), and need you to bugger off. You have no idea what’s going on in my world or you wouldn’t need to call, now would you? Knowing why you called helps to establish the parameters of the conversation, and it helps me to determine if I’m ready, able, and willing to participate in this conversation. Maybe I really do want to chat with you, but I have a project due in a half-hour; knowing what your intentions are up front saves me from having to be rude and cut you off mid-sentence.

Don’t violate the established purpose of the call. This one cuts both ways. If someone says they called to share something with you, let them share it, then be ready to clear the line. If you want to have a lengthy conversation, you can ask if they have time to talk, but now the burden is on you to accept a no. Likewise, if you established up front this would be a short call, don’t try to turn it into an hour long diatribe about your life. On the other hand, if they made it clear up front they wanted to have a long conversation and you accepted, get comfy. You bought into this, so settle in.

Be gracious about letting go. Sometimes things come up. Even if someone said they could talk, circumstances change. Sometimes you’re just a lot more longwinded and boring than anyone could have expected (and if this happens to you a lot, think long and hard about what that says about you). If someone tries to cut in and say they have to go, let them. Don’t keep talking over them, and even worse don’t play the “just one last thing” card, because we all know it’s never just one thing. Sign off and call them back another time, preferably a few days (or weeks) later.

Consider alternate forms of communication. We have text, email, Facebook, Twitter, and (god forbid) old-fashioned letter writing. Think before you pick up the phone and know what you need. Phones are best used for one of two things: either you need an immediate response (so the others are out) or you just want to hear that person’s voice. Either is acceptable, but again, establish that up front. It helps to set the tone of the conversation as well as the expectations. If I know you need an immediate response, it means this will be a short call (unless it’s a complex problem, in which case call me to say you’ll email me the details, then get off). If you want to hear my voice, either I’ll find time to talk or, even better, we’ll find time to get together face-to-face. If we can’t do the latter, at least let me do you the courtesy of giving you my full attention, which is obviously what you want and need.

If more people follow these simple rules, the result will be clearer communication in all our relationships, both personal and professional. For my money, that’s the only reason for any kind of etiquette.


2 Comments on “Telephone Etiquette”

  1. Jeff says:

    These are great guidelines, and I agree wholeheartedly. I have a work associate who works a different shift and will call me frequently first thing in the morning and talk to me for 30 minutes about whatever happens to pop into his mind. I don’t dislike the guy, but it’s my busiest time of day. Then, there’s my direct supervisor, who refuses to pick up the phone and always talks on speaker, no matter what’s happening in the room. That annoys me to no end!

  2. Etiquette is not old-fashioned: its purpose is enduring. Really, it’s the extension of what makes a society run smoothly. A set of ‘rules’ that just everybody agrees to follow helps us all to know what to expect and not have to re-negotiate or try to decipher the laws of interaction every time we interact! As long as the rules evolve with the needs of the society, they should stand the test of time. EVERYTHING YOU WROTE STILL APPLIES. C’mon, people.


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