A Quick Refresher on Basic Phone Etiquette

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

Tim Harper
Published in
6 min readMar 25, 2020


A grandmother smiles and laughs as she talks on the phone.
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…