Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
Telephones have been around, in some form or another for over a century and there have been several notable advancements in the technology during that time. Most of those advances forced a change in the etiquette, except the last time it needed to. When cell phones entered common use the old etiquette could still be followed but it no longer fits.
The Evolution of Phones
To understand the etiquette of phones, one must understand how the technology and the etiquette have evolved since Alexander Graham Bell said “Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.” in 1876. The core features of phone technology haven’t appreciably changed since then but the routing has changed enormously.
The Party Line
The first phone system in many communities was a party line. Party lines consist of two connections. The first rings the bells on all the phones in the community when a handle is turned on any of them. A second connection carries the voice signal to all the phones on the network at once, if someone picks up the receiver. Party lines were inexpensive, lacking the need for complicated routing equipment or paid staff, and allowed many people to participate in the same conversation but they provided no possibility for privacy and inherently had a limited capacity, to the point that they could only serve a small community.
Typically people were expected to only pick up the phone if they intended to participate in the conversation, although many people eavesdropped anyway. It was also expected that conversations be kept brief, so others could also use the line. It’s also when the expectation started that an incoming call never be ignored.
The first major improvement in technology was the switchboard. One to one calls became the norm, with human beings (usually women) routing the call. Besides the obvious benefit to privacy, switchboards allowed for long distance calls and the operators could render assistance, like retrying busy lines and helping to track down individuals.
Mostly the etiquette didn’t change, but now people were expected to be considerate of the operators. Better yet, people back then were actually respectful. The long time it sometimes took to connect calls even forced people to be patient.
I grouped all of these together because they all had the same effect on etiquette. The role of the operator was eliminated along with all its benefits. Calls now connected quickly, even between continents. It also brought about the end of accountability because anonymity became possible. For that reason, hanging up on a call in progress became acceptable.
With the advent of caller id and the answering machine, it became possible to identify callers before answering again. This was also the first time the etiquette didn’t fully update. It was still seen as extreme to not answer.
When mobile phones, most notably cell phones, came on the scene people were always near a phone for the first time, but the etiquette didn’t update at all.
The New Etiquette
With our society’s failure to update phone etiquette, we’ve ended up with some pretty aggravating and sometimes dangerous situations.
Answering is Optional
It’s entirely acceptable to not answer the phone for any reason. The assumption must be that when someone doesn’t answer it’s because it would be inappropriate or unwise.
The Physically Present Take Priority
It’s never acceptable to ignore the people around you to answer the phone. Only answer the phone in social settings when you believe it will be a genuine emergency or some other “DEFCON 1” type situation.
Move Away to Talk
Go as far away from others as you reasonably can to talk on the phone. Nobody else wants to listen to your conversation so don’t force them too.
Use Speakerphone Sparingly
It’s only appropriate to use speakerphone when nothing else is practical. Using speakerphone as an alternative to holding the phone or to allow many people to participate are the appropriate options. That said, the other side has the right to know who can hear them.
Don’t Make Calls That You Shouldn’t Expect To Be Answered
I’ve explored when to make phone calls before, so I won’t again. If you’re making a phone call when you shouldn’t then you can’t expect it to be answered. Also, if the other party’s caller id doesn’t accurately identify you or the party you represent you are lying to them and calling them becomes malicious.
Don’t Assume Anyone is Perpetually Available
A trend has appeared that people think they have the right to a prompt response to a phone call placed to a business at any time, day or night. They don’t. Only call business lines during regular business hours and expect specific people to be entirely unreachable while on holiday, unless you’ve been personally told otherwise.
That’s my idea of how phone etiquette needs to be updated. If you have any ideas of your own, drop them in the comments.