A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. This essay is an interlude, an article that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight, or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And one thing everyone ought to know is how and when to make a phone call.
Now, at first it seems like this isn’t much of an issue — who calls anyone anymore, am I right? But of course we still have to use the phone, and moreover we need to interact with several different generations on the phone, a few of which still view phone calls as the preferred method of contact. So whether you’re Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, or God help you, a Baby Boomer, here are some tips for good phone etiquette. Hope they help!
For Professional Use
If you are using a phone in a professional setting, the keys to good phone etiquette lie in formality and clarity. That takes the following points into account:
- Speak clearly, at a good volume, in an even tone: You can’t do your job if the other person can’t hear what you’re saying. That means they have to be able to understand your words, you have to speak at a volume that will clearly transmit, and you shouldn’t be using any tones other than an even, professional, courteous tone of voice.
- Use professional language: No cussing, no slang, no idioms.
- Be formal: When dealing with the public, call people Mr. or Ms. and use professional titles if you know them. Never call a stranger by their first name.
- Give your name: Unless otherwise instructed, always let people know who they’re talking to and who/what you represent.
- Be an active listener: Hear what people are saying, not what you think they’re saying. When necessary, repeat back to them what you think they said in order to get confirmation. It’s not for nothing that there’s a communications game called “telephone” designed specifically to demonstrate how bad people are at hearing things.
- Be helpful: If you’re dealing with the public, find a way to help the person on the other end of the call. Try not to leave people hanging. Give them info, transfer them to someone who can help, get your supervisor, etc. This is just good customer service.
- Ask before you put someone on hold: It’s rude to just drop people into the hell of bad hold music without warning. Ask first.
- Mute your phone when you aren’t speaking: Office environments can be noisy places. No one needs to hear keys clacking, munching noises, or your cube neighbor’s loud descriptions of her medical issues. Mute that phone.
- Keep messages short and sweet: Messages should contain your name, your contact information, and your purpose for leaving a message. NEVER LEAVE A MESSAGE WHEN AN EMAIL WILL DO. Voicemail is an artifact of an older tech base, treat it as such.
- Only call when email gets tedious: Let’s review our communication options, shall we? Email is for quick messages and putting things on record. Meetings are for discussing issues in detail, and should result in an email summary. Phone calls are for meetings or communications that can’t be done in person. Only call when email becomes inefficient, or when it’s the best way of communicating with a coworker or customer. Otherwise send email or meet in person.
For Conference Calls
Conference calls are this whole other beast. They can be excellent tools to bring together a teleworking office, or they can rapidly devolve into people talking over each other and miscommunicating. Here are some tips to help you get through a call:
- Enforce meeting discipline: It is vital that conference calls begin on time, with all participants present. Otherwise you get this annoying wave of beeps as people dial in, disrupting the meeting. If you’re running a conference call, do whatever you can to make sure people respect the meeting.
- Take roll call: If you are running the meeting, make sure you identify who is on the line. Nothing derails a meeting faster than not having everyone there, and you can save yourself the trouble of having to start over if a key player isn’t on the line yet.
- Once again, mute your phone!: I’m gonna say it again, because it’s even more important on a conference call — if you’re not talking, mute your damn phone.
- Do not put a conference call on hold: Never put a conference call on hold. Never. Ever. If you have to step away, simply mute your phone. Otherwise you’ll blast the meeting with whatever godawful hold music your company plays.
- Give everyone time to speak: Conference calls are notorious for poor communication for one big reason — people lack visual cues. It’s hard to know when to talk if you can’t see the other people. This results in people talking over each other, getting frustrated, and then shutting up. It also tends to engender “lurkers” — people who are on the call, but radio-silent. Make sure you specifically call out everyone on the call to give them a chance to talk.
- Guide the discussion: Conference calls require more than the average level of guidance from the organizer/moderator. If you’re running the call, keep people on subject with a pre-set agenda, and make sure that you have distributed slides or documentation if you want to talk through technical concepts.
- Ask for other topics before you hang up: Never just end a conference call. There will always be that one person with a last-minute point or question, and sometimes it’s important. Always ask if people have any more items to discuss before ending a call, and always announce that you are ending the call.
For Personal Use
If you are using a phone for personal conversations, the following points apply:
- Do you need to call at all?: Older people, please recall that younger people (by and large and with exceptions) hate talking on the phone. Millennials and Gen Z prefer to text, email, or meet in person. You get a pass if you’re a parent. Everyone else can text us.
- Don’t leave voicemail if you can help it: Just don’t. Text and email exist, and are less hassle than having to spend five minutes wading through a voicemail menu. Only leave a voicemail if you can’t text or email, or if you absolutely positively have to have that personal touch.
- Keep it short or be prepared to talk for two hours: There are only two acceptable time periods for a personal call — a short call to confirm details, because calling takes less time than writing a text/email, or a long call to allow people to have a conversation. Everything in between is the realm of texts and emails.
- Call the phone with the best reception: Most cell phones have crap reception, because they’re not actually primarily used as phones anymore. They’re internet gateways, text machines, navigation aids, and gaming platforms. The phone component is minimal, as is the call quality. So if someone has both a cell phone and a landline, it probably makes for a better conversation to call the landline. Strange but true, technology has gone into reverse on this point.
- Ask before putting someone on speaker: Being put on speakerphone can be seen as a privacy intrusion in personal calls. Always ask before you put someone on speaker.
- Speak towards the microphone: I can’t recall how many times I’ve been on a call with someone who is obviously roaming around the room and shouting in the general direction of their phone. Don’t be that person. If you’re on a call, give the conversation your attention and speak into the microphone so the other person can hear you. If you can’t do that, don’t call. Finish your chores, put on a headset, or whatever you need to do to keep the microphone near your face.
- Say “goodbye” before you hang up: Only on TV can people get away with just hanging up the phone without any kind of sign-off salutation. In real life that’s extremely rude.
Whether our next iterations of phones are based on video calls, transduction headsets, quantum entanglement or just plain old tried-and-true voice radio, these points should all hold up for the next few years.
In general, it’s useful to remember the role of phones in 2019: telephones are intermediate communication devices. They’re for times when you can’t meet in person, can’t or don’t want to text or email, and for times when it’s more efficient to call than it is to text or email. To end on a general rule, if you can text, email, or meet in person, do one of those things rather than making a phone call.
But don’t let that stop you, Mom. I still love to hear your voice.