Back in the olden days, shortly after the middle of the last century, when I was in elementary school, we were taught “telephone etiquette.” The rules are mostly meaningless today, as the technology has made voice communication more frequent, and sometimes more complex. We were taught that when calling, we should let the phone ring at least 10 times before hanging up(no voice-mail then), so that the receiving party would have time to get to the phone, which was firmly tethered to the wall at one location in the home. When answering, it was polite to say something like “Smith residence” so that the caller would be sure the connection was correct. The caller was advised to identify himself immediately, before asking for the desired family member (we didn’t each have a phone!) “Party line” etiquette was more rigid (for you youngsters, many of us shared a telephone line with one or two neighbors; there was a distinctive ring for each “party”). If one wanted to make a call, but a neighbor was using the line, one hung up immediately after saying “Excuse me.” One could only interrupt in an emergency. And eavesdropping on others’ conversations was forbidden, except for the local gossips, and we knew when they were on the line (never as quiet as they thought!) One never tied up the line for long periods of time.
Yes, things have changed. But my definition of good manners has not. I have always felt that “etiquette” is not a matter of memorizing rules, but of behaving with consideration for other people. There are some common practices involving the use of voice communication today that could be improved with a little thoughtfulness.
As the owner of a small retail establishment, I make and receive calls all day long. I don’t have the luxury that I had when working in an office, of letting calls go to voice-mail and dealing with them in batches. My work is interrupted constantly, but it would be rude (and stupid!) not to answer the phone; frequently there is actually a customer on the line, rather than “the robot.” (Question: are you really going to make a small business loan to someone who listens to your pre-recorded spiel and pushes “1”; is that really all I have to do?) Here are a few of my suggestions for a kinder gentler use of the new technology.
1. If you call my (or anyone’s) business, be prepared to talk to the person who answers the phone. Nothing is more disconcerting than picking up the phone, starting with my usual greeting, “Good morning…..” and getting about that far before there is a voice in my ear, not responding to me, but talking to someone else. Finish your other conversation before placing the call! I deal with this by not saying anything, then listening to “Hello!” “Hello!” when it registers with the caller that they have reached my shop but I am not going to compete with someone else for their attention. This situation occurs at least once a day.
2. One old rule still applies: the caller should identify herself as soon as possible. Perhaps because I have established relationships with a great many of my customers, usually by means of chatting about books, they feel that I am a dear friend. They don’t realize that they deal with one bookseller; I deal with scores of people, and try to be friendly to all. However, I do not usually recognize voices beyond those of my family and close friends. When I say, “Who’s calling, please?” people seem shocked that I don’t know. Perhaps there is an assumption that I checked Caller ID before answering. I don’t; it’s a business, I’m not going to not answer the phone! Just say, “Hi! This is Jane Jones.”
3. Finish your cell phone call before you approach the counter to ask for assistance. Fortunately, this type of rudeness does not happen often, but when it does, it is dismaying. It seems that the habit of carrying on conversations at full volume in public places has diminished, and least in our town. Most people browsing in my shop apologize when their phones ring, and if they must take the call, go outside. Those few who still think that their work or other activities are so important that the irritation to others is irrelevant truly stand out. These are the people, deeply engrossed in their phone conversations, who wonder why I am not eager to meet their book-buying needs. As far as I am concerned they are telling me and the person on the other end of the line that neither of us is worthy of their full attention. I usually wait quietly, and if the talker is insistent on service, say, “I’ll wait until you’re finished.” The common response is a sheepish ending of the phone call, followed by an apology. I truly believe they are oblivious to their own bad manners. But I’m sure they would consider me rude if I tried to help them find a book while talking to someone else.
4. If you have missed calls on your cell phone, check to see if there is a corresponding voice-mail. When I place calls to customers, usually regarding book orders, I leave detailed messages; frequently there is no need to return the call, the beauty of voice-mail. So when I answer the phone (dutifully reciting the name of my establishment), it’s frustrating to have someone say “Who’s this?” (or with some of the younger generation “Who dis?”). I want to say “Who were you calling?” There are too many people who just click on the number of a missed call to return it, having no idea to whom or why.
These irritations are just that, small daily annoyances, but if this post helps one person to think about the effect of their telephone behavior, it was worth writing. And things could be worse – my shop phone could stop ringing!