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21st Century Phone Etiquette

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A man using a mobile phone in the early 1980s

Right up until almost the end of the 20th Century, human affairs were conducted in local isolation. If you were at a music festival, on the train, driving home in your car, or just out shopping, you were, for all practical purposes, incommunicado, unless perhaps you used a phone box. And yet, somehow, we managed to live our lives.

Now, in the 21st Century, this splendid isolation seems as quaint as steam trains and rickets. Practically everyone is contactable 24 hours a day, wherever they are, whatever they're doing. However, this has resulted in a massive increase in really quite astonishing rudeness, as people on both ends of mobile communications prioritise them over face-to-face, personal contact.

Of course, there are a very, very few people for whom mobile contact and the shunning of those around them in favour of it are not only necessary but required. However, unless you are a doctor on call or someone else with similar life-and-death responsibilities - that's not you.

In order for society to be more polite and civilised, the fundamental thing we all need to understand is this: that incoming phone call or text doesn't matter. It is not important. It is, specifically, not as important as maintaining polite discourse with the live humans around you. It can wait a minute or an hour, until a more convenient time. And, crucially - it should wait. One teaches small children that it is rude to interrupt people when they're talking. We should teach the same lesson to ourselves, and apply it to our phones.

Note that the author is not suggesting that all text and voicemail messages should be ignored at all times. Rather, it is being suggested that priority should be given to one's immediate company. If one receives a bona fide emergency message, it is of course permissible to read it, and excuse oneself to respond appropriately. However, bona fide emergencies where it matters when you get the message are very few and far between. Just because you can be told immediately, doesn't mean you should be.

Rules for Phone Use

  1. If you text someone with something you'd expect an answer to, and they don't reply, do not text them again. Their phone will already be showing '1 unread message'. All you will achieve by sending another will be to make it show '2 unread messages', and to make yourself look like an annoyingly persistent git who doesn't understand how text messaging works.

  2. If someone texts you while you're talking to someone else or, heaven forbid, driving - don't answer. Think of a text message as a post-it note, politely and diffidently placed into your peripheral vision as you talk to someone. It is not shouting and demanding an instant response. It's murmuring 'When you've got a moment...'. So wait until you do have a moment. There are few things ruder than breaking off a conversation with someone in person so that you can answer a text message.

  3. If you need to have an extended conversation with someone, don't use text. Text is for messages like 'ETA fiveish' or 'Keys are by the kettle'. It is not for things like 'Why don't you love me any more?' or 'What are we going to do about Kevin?' The first 'S' in SMS stands for 'short'. If it looks like you're getting into an actual conversation - have a conversation. With your voice.

  4. If you have an answering machine or a mobile phone, record a short personal outgoing message, of the form 'Hi, this is Derek, please leave a message', or similar. That way, when someone calls, they can be off the phone in just a few seconds. It is most frustrating to call someone, wait for ten rings, then have to listen to an electronic woman say 'Welcome to the Lemon Answering And Voice Messaging Phone Service. We're honestly very sorry, but the person you've called... is not available. Perhaps they're on another call. Possibly their phone is switched off. Or maybe our dismal network coverage means they can't get a signal. Or possibly they saw it was you calling and chose to ignore you. Please leave a message after the tone, which will sound in just a few minutes, after I've finished explaining how everything works to you in this message, which, although you've heard it seventy thousand times before, you must listen to... every word of... before you can leave your message for the person you call. When you have finished recording your message, please, do just hang up, or, if you have said something embarrassing or made some other sort of mistake, press 1 to change your message. Be warned that if you do press 1, you'll have to listen to me again for another five or six minutes blathering on and on before you can actually try again. You may now, at last, record your message.........Beep.'

  5. If someone rings you, but you don't get to the phone in time and it stops ringing, do not immediately ring them back. Give it at least five minutes. Chances are that, since you've not bothered to follow instruction number 4, they are now sitting listening to that awful woman promising them that in a minute or three they'll be able to leave you a message. If you call them back immediately, this annoyance will be compounded by the fact that they can now hear a call-waiting beep, and they can see it's you calling them back, even as they're listening to your interminable answering machine blather. They will now be seized by indecision. Do they leave a message? Or do they answer the call from you? And, crucially, how do they do either of those things? They will inevitably end up hanging up on you and putting the answering machine on hold, leaving you to later pick up a ten-minute long message consisting entirely of silence.

  6. If you ring someone for a specific reason and get their answering machine - leave a message. If it's important, they'll see that they have a message, they'll pick it up, and they'll call you back, if necessary. Don't just hang up and think about calling them later, and especially don't hang up and immediately call them back. They are not there, or if they are there, they are not answering. Take the hint. Continuing to ring them is the equivalent of turning up at someone's front door, ringing the bell, and when there's no answer, banging on the door and shouting 'I know you're in there!'.

  7. If you ring someone for no specific reason and get the answering machine - don't leave a message. They'll have to ring their answering service, just to be told it's not important. If it's trivial, just leave it.

  8. If you ring someone and reach them, ask immediately if it's convenient to talk. This will give them the opportunity to say 'Actually no, could you call back?'. When they say that, just say, 'OK' and hang up immediately. Do not say 'I just need to tell you...' or 'Very quickly, a little thing...' or anything else. You might, once you've hung up, quite reasonably wonder to yourself why, if it wasn't convenient to talk, did they bother to answer the thing in the first place.

  9. If someone rings you, and it's not convenient to talk - don't answer. Do not pick the phone up and tell them you can't talk right now. Just leave it. Some people seem to think that something bad will happen if they don't answer all calls immediately. This is false. Times when it is not convenient to talk include:

    • When you are in any very quiet place (eg library, funeral, wedding, art gallery). Answering a phone here is rude to the people around you. It should go without saying that people who leave their mobile phone switched on, let alone answer it, in a cinema or theatre should be immediately ejected.

    • When you are in any very noisy place (eg nightclub, party, jet engine testing station). Answering a phone here is rude to the person calling you, as inevitably your end of the conversation will consist almost entirely of the word 'What?'

    • When you are driving. It was once a very exclusive thing to have a phone in one's car. However, the kind of car that had a phone usually also had a chauffeur. There has been a short window of time in which it was acceptable to drive while holding a phone. That time has passed. If the phone rings while you're driving, ignore it as you would a whining child. If you cannot ignore it, pull over and stop, as you would for a whining child. And if you phone someone and they tell you they're driving - hang up.

  10. When talking to someone on the phone, if they say anything along the lines of 'I must go now', immediately say 'OK, speak to you soon' or similar, and hang up. Don't extend the pleasantries excessively, and do not, most egregiously of all, try to start a new topic of conversation. They've politely indicated to you that they need to end the conversation, but strong social conditioning prevents them from simply hanging up on you. If you now say 'Before I go I must just tell you...', you are being incredibly rude. You are saying 'I understand that you must go now, and I heard your indication that you wish this conversation to end. I am ignoring you. I am going to carry on talking to you until I am finished, and only then, when I'm good and ready, will I permit you to do whatever it is you need to do right now.'

  11. If you are talking to someone on the phone and something comes up that means you have to go (eg a pan starts to boil over, a child falls down some stairs, your partner walks in naked carrying some strawberries and whipped cream...), say 'Look, I have to go...' or similar. If the person you're talking to says anything along the lines of 'I must just tell you...', simply hang up without guilt. They were rude first.

  12. If you are going to call someone, ensure that you yourself are ready for the call before you dial. Do not, under any circumstance, ever call someone, and then, when they answer the phone, ask them to hang on. If you are not ready to conduct your conversation with them, do not dial until you are. Therefore, before dialling, ensure your cat is fed, the other people in your house know you are about to make a phone call and should not be disturbed, that you are not driving, operating machinery or otherwise distracted.

  13. If someone calls you, and then when you answer the phone says 'Oh... just hang on a second' - hang up. They called you. They will call you back.

  14. If you have called someone, you have interrupted their day and demanded to speak to them. Therefore - speak to them, and only to them. Do not conduct other conversations with people in the same room as you. A brief 'Yes, I'll have a tea with sugar, thanks' is permissible. Long exchanges where you expect the person you've called to simply wait are not.

  15. If someone rings you, but then starts or carries on a conversation with someone else at their end - hang up. If talking to you was important, they'll call back.

  16. Do not walk up to someone who is on the phone and try to start a conversation with them. Miming 'Tea?', or 'Is that Derek?' is acceptable, as long as you accept a nod as the entire answer. With some of today's tiny phones it may not always be immediately obvious that someone is on the phone1, but do stop talking and leave the instant you realise you're interrupting.

  17. The text message is an excellent medium for sharing jokes. However, before doing so, consider the time and the recipient. As a general rule, never send joke texts, or for that matter any non-urgent texts, before 9am or after 9pm. Bear in mind that most people have their phone on, with the ringer on, by their bed, so do not wake them in the middle of the night with trivialities. Also, never send your mother the shrimp joke2.

If you follow the above rules at all times, you should start to find that the people you call, and the people who call you, will start to follow them too.

Above all, recognise that you own your telephone, not the other way round. Recognise that ignoring it is not only permissible, it's quite often actually preferable. Answering it is always optional.

1Especially if they're just listening to someone blathering on at length2Do not ask.

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