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The Evolution of Phone Manners

January 25, 2015
Mary Jane Copps

From time to time, in a workshop or in conversation, people will challenge me on what I believe to be true about today’s telephone etiquette. “That’s not what I was taught,” they’ll say. Or, “I’ve been doing it the same way for years, and it works for me.” I struggle in these moments; I want to explain to them why they should consider making a change but can’t find the right words. I’ll often default to “Well, if it’s working for you …  .”

But recently PBS provided me with the perfect answer in this situation.

Here’s where I have to admit that I’m a Downton Abbey fan. I am in awe of the costumes, the grandeur and all the bits of history. But mostly … I’m a fan of Dame Maggie Smith. If she’s in something, I’ll watch it and am never disappointed.

This year PBS also produced a one-hour special featuring Alastair Bruce, the series’ historical advisor.  It  was in watching this and learning more about the etiquette of Edwardian England that I found some answers to today’s phone manners. (You, too, can watch the full episode of The Manners of Downton Abbey.)

Downton Abbey is set at a time when the English Upper Class are being challenged by change, impacted by both the Industrial Revolultion and The Great War, with World War II simmering in the background. As Alastair Bruce explains, “There was a very real fear that without formality the authority of the aristocracy would fall apart … .” So people hung on tightly to things they’d been taught, behaviours passed from one generation to the next.

Which brings me back to the phone, that piece of equipment that causes Dame Maggie Smith, in her role as Dowager Countess of Grantham, to ask,  “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?” Telephone communication has gone through – and continues to go through – its own revolution (or perhaps evolution). From connecting us to others via operators to dial phones to heavy mobile car phones to today’s cellphone/computers, the change in the equipment, reflecting a change in culture, dictates that etiquette has changed as well.

For example, calling someone and asking the question “Is this a good time?” was, at one time, the pinnacle of politeness. It’s now, well, irritating. The existence of both voice mail and call display mean that, for the most part, we no longer answer the phone at a “bad time. The very act of answering the phone most often means that we have time to talk. When that action is disregarded and we are met by a question, we often take the opportunity to bail on the conversation completely,  i.e. “No, it’s not a good time.”.

Today’s excellent phone manners demand instead that you are very present in a phone call and listen carefully to how someone sounds when they answer the phone as well as to any noises around them that provide information. If they answer and you hear stress in their voice you might say “Oh, it sounds like I’ve caught you at a bad time.” You might hear in reply “Yes, I’m struggling with a presentation for a meeting today. Call me this afternoon.”

If they answer and you hear voices around them you might say “Oh, it sounds like I’ve caught you in a meeting.” You might hear in reply, “Oh, that meeting is finishing up. I’m fine to talk.”

Your presence, your ability to listen and respond, displays your respect for the person you are calling. It’s subtle but obvious to your audience – just like good manners.

Enjoy your PhoneWork everyone!

4 COMMENTS

  1. Cathy says:

    Great blog! I know personally I bail if given the opportunity or “is this a good time”, because it irritates me that they ask it to begin with. I wouldn’t have answered if it wasn’t a good time lol’s.

    • The Phone Lady says:

      Thanks, Cathy, for taking the time to comment. It is such a subtle change in how we perceive that question that it has taken me ages to find the right words to explain why it is no longer polite. Having you share your experience is very valuable.

  2. Paul Mombourquette says:

    Some people do answer the phone when they don’t have time. I have had this happen many times and was told immediately that they don’t have time to talk. I usually get off thinking, that they should have let it go to voice mail. Others, I would catch the tone, and then ask if I have caught them at a bad time, and then set a time to call later. I love Downton Abbey too, it’s a drama, but quacks me up!

    • The Phone Lady says:

      Thanks, Paul, for sharing your experience. It is so valuable to hear what others are encountering on the phone.

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