A Quick Refresher on Basic Phone Etiquette

Quarantined at home, we’ve rediscovered what phones are really for

Photo: Akshar Dave/Unsplash

EEver since Alexander Graham Bell beat the pack of competing inventors to the big payday in 1876, the telephone has been changing the way humans communicate. For the better part of a century, the device was the center of the American household, a clunky contraption nailed to the wall or honored with its own little telephone-table. Teenagers dragged it into their rooms, trailing tangled wires behind them. E.T. wanted to “phone home” in the classic 1982 Steven Spielberg film, stretching his gnarly finger to the heavens.

Then, the phone calls petered out. Email and texting were faster and easier. Social media offered new ways to chat and flirt, and work messaging systems such as Slack made many calls obsolete. Asynchronous communication became the norm, allowing us to send or reply any time.

And it was great! Typing out our conversations piecemeal didn’t take up as much time — or emotional energy — as a phone call did. We didn’t have to wait our turn to talk, or to actually deal with people in real time. “Why are we still calling them phones?” Quartz asked in 2015, alongside a chart of global mobile traffic showing that data usage for texting, apps, and internet browsing dwarfed data usage for voice calls.

By 2019, talking on the phone was almost an extinct practice. It seemed like nearly every ringtone brought robocalls, spams, and scams. Many of us got into the habit of letting every call go to voicemail — and then, if it was someone we knew, we’d reply with a text. Maybe.

That is, until the coronavirus pandemic made us all shut-ins.

AAcross America and the world, people sheltering in place aren’t just discovering video phone calls and Zoom parties and remote meetings; they are also rediscovering the power of the old-fashioned voice-only phone call. In a time of social distancing, it turns out the telephone is still a great way to “reach out and touch someone” — without risking a nasty infection.

In the U.S., both Verizon and AT&T told me that Americans are making far more calls during the pandemic than we would in more normal times. AT&T provided numbers: This past Sunday, March 22, wireless voice calls were up 44% vs. a typical Sunday; Wi-Fi calling was up 88%; and home/landline voice calls were up 74%.

Many of us are learning — or relearning — that the cellphones in our bags and pockets are good for more than email, texts, calendars, directions, swiping for love, and cat videos. Our phones, it turns out, have a truly transformative feature: They are really good for calling people.

And hearing their actual voices. When you want to check how grandma is getting groceries, to reassure your sister that this isn’t the apocalypse, or just to connect with a friend you can’t go for a drink with, an old-fashioned phone call is pretty damn efficient.

Besides information, a voice can express feelings. We can sense others’ joy or fear or uncertainty, especially if we know them well.

And I can attest: Talking on the phone is funnier. Humor gets lost in text communications. A bit of irony or sarcasm can come off wrong, and lead to hard feelings. Also — and I am banking on this one — a dad joke is more likely to land if you can hear the dad telling it.

We can’t see other people on the screen, but that’s okay; they can’t see us, either. And that’s not such a bad thing when we aren’t dressed or have bedhead or look hungover from last night’s virtual happy hour.

TThe phone call — so 20th century — has certainly become more important to my family in coronavirus times. My wife and I typically talk to our grown kids, one in London and one in Los Angeles, once a week or so. Now it’s once a day, sometimes more. We exchange the latest news from our towns and our neighborhoods, and then we find ourselves wandering into happy talk — funny family stories and future plans for getting together.

I also find myself on calls—increasingly out of the blue—with family and friends I haven’t seen or heard from in a while. The farmer who’s worried about whether people will buy his produce this summer; the Chicago pastor who is trying to raise money for the technology to set up remote services; the architect whose partner is a nurse with three kids. These are all longtime, good friends — and yet we haven’t corresponded in any manner in months. But as the phone works its magic, we sink soothingly into the familiar warmth of each others’ voices.

“Humans are social beings who seek contact with other humans,” says Bruce Cappo, a Kansas psychologist who has worked with people feeling isolated or alienated by technology. “When we have social distance, people need to fill that.” He says phone calls add another layer of information that brings nuance and meaning and helps avoid the misunderstandings so common to email and texts.

And he goes a step further, arguing that the decline in phone calls in recent years has led to a sense of distrust, and made us more cautious and skeptical. At work, misreading of text-based messages can stymie cooperation and collaboration. An actual phone call makes us trust not only that person more, but everybody, Cappo says. We’re more willing to see the good in people, and believe what they are saying.

“P“Psychology has a theory for everything, and the theory for this is called ‘tend and befriend,’” says Thomas Plante, a Bay Area psychologist who teaches at Santa Clara University. It’s a stress response that differs fundamentally from the famous “fight or flight” response, but is no less human: In times of danger or stress, we “tend” to our existing friendships, and we show our willingness to “befriend” others. Often, that takes the form of small gestures of consideration, such as letting someone with only a few items go ahead and of us in the grocery checkout line, or delivering groceries to an elderly neighbor.

Plante, who is officially the American Psychological Association’s “Civility Ambassador,” but unofficially prefers to be called its “Chief Civil Engineer,” has some free advice for these self-isolated times: “Phone home.”

But here’s the thing: Since E.T. phoned his extraterrestrial compatriots, a lot of us have forgotten how to talk on the phone, or at least, how to do it well.

Phone etiquette was something that evolved over time. Like so many things we now take for granted, Bell’s phone was originally a commercial device, connecting homes to shops, so a formality prevailed at first. It didn’t take long, of course, for people to start telephoning each other to gossip, share information, make and break appointments, or chat about nothing in particular.

Back before children’s exposure to talking into a phone was mostly limited to FaceTime chats with their grandparents, we were taught to be patient and polite on the telephone—because phone manners mattered. We were expected to say, “Hello?” loudly and clearly, and sometimes the name of our residence. If the call was for someone else, we’d ask the caller to hold on, then cover the headpiece with our hand and holler up the stairs. Answering the phone carried with it a sense of responsibility.

In these anxious times, simply dialing a number and talking into the phone is not enough. We need to do it correctly. That is, politely and with consideration. Here are a few tips:

  • Answer promptly.
  • Identify yourself (even if you think your name will come up on their phone).
  • Modulate your voice; not too loud or soft.
  • Speak clearly and not too fast.
  • Control your tone. Be cordial, competent, and don’t use “drama language.”
  • Only use speakerphone with the consent of the other party.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Listen; take notes if it helps you to focus.

And — this last one is important — laugh if something is funny. Don’t hesitate to say if you are making a joke, or smiling in response. Something I’ve noticed when reconnecting with my friends spread out across the country: It is wonderful to hear them laugh — so much better than an “LOL.”

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