Evolving Phone Etiquette

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic, noting that, "No one picks up the phone anymore," considers the evolution of phone etiquette from the initial debate over how to answer up to the current time, when robocallers have rendered the old practice of answering immediately seem ridiculous.

I'm old enough to remember this:

He wanted us to answer with, "Ahoy-hoy!" (Image via Wikipedia)
In the moment when a phone rang, there was an imperative. One had to pick up the phone. This thinking permeated the culture from adults to children. In a Hello Kitty segment designed to teach kids how the phone worked, Hello Kitty is playing when the phone starts to ring. "It's the phone. Yay!" she says. "Mama! Mama! The telephone is ringing. Hurry! They are gonna hang up."

Before ubiquitous caller ID or even *69 (which allowed you to call back the last person who'd called you), if you didn't get to the phone in time, that was that. You'd have to wait until they called back. And what if the person calling had something really important to tell you or ask you? Missing a phone call was awful. Hurry! [italics and link in original]
This reminds me of the advent of the answering machine, which I recall at first getting a chilly reception from some quarters -- until the value of not missing calls sunk in. But the early adopters had it right because the whole premise of that ritual was that there was often no alternative to the phone for an important communication. (For something urgent, there sometimes still isn't.)

Now, there are several, as Madrigal indicates, and robocallers have abused the old convention, which effectively allows anyone "at their arbitrary whim, to anonymously activate your fire alarm inside your home." I welcome the change for the most part, but would like to adapt a tip from Miss Manners to hasten the demise of the randomly-activated home fire alarm. She once advised a reader to turn her ringer off whenever a relative was present, to keep him from answering her phone against her wishes. The problem is now that most calls are garbage, with the ringer providing an unwelcome distraction on top of the inconvenience of answering. Perhaps most people will soon not use ringers absent an appointment for a call, or at least only for a group of whitelisted numbers. For a time, some, like job-hunters or people with kids in daycare might have to keep an ear out by default, but perhaps prospective employers would start setting up a calling time over text or email, and daycare centers could use a small set of numbers (that could be whitelisted). (The final frontier will be emergencies, and I have to admit being stumped for the moment there.)

Perhaps, in the long run, telemarketers will have done us a favor by killing off a convention whose time has passed in most contexts. Good riddance.

-- CAV

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