Are You “Polite-ing” Yourself Out of Conversation?

With some frequency, people ask me, What is today’s phone etiquette?” I always hesitate to answer. Maybe the word ‘etiquette’ makes me stumble. It comes from the Old French estiquette, meaning label or ticket, and refers to a tradition from the 1700s of small cards with written instructions on how to behave properly at court,  how to follow important ceremonial observances. Phone calls lost their sense of ceremony decades ago and today being too polite can quickly destroy any opportunity for conversation.

So, what’s the alternative? How can you adapt?

Our hectic lives have transformed phone calls from enjoyable possibilities for conversations to resented intrusions. While we may be disappointed in this shift, we can’t ignore its reality … at least not if we want to communicate effectively.

Today when we start phone conversations by talking about health (“How are you?”) or weather (“It’s certainly been a wet spring.”), we are indicating that our call may lack focus, that it might waste time. This creates tension for the other person who’s juggling a long list of tasks and responsibilities. Their response is often abrupt and unwelcoming.

A similar reaction is created when we ask, “Is this a good time? While this question was the height of politeness for years and years and is often still taught in communications courses, it reminds the person we’re calling that we have interrupted them, that they have other important things to do. And it gives them an easy and polite way to end the call quickly simply by saying, “No.”

Of course, if you know someone very well and speak with them frequently, asking after their health or discussing the weather may be perfectly acceptable but otherwise … get to the point of your call as quickly as possible.

You can start your call with phrases like “The reason for my call today is …” or “I’m calling you today because …” Acknowledging people are busy, letting them know we are prepared and focused – this is today’s etiquette.

And be present when the person answers your call. Listen and react to what is going on in their world. Do you hear voices indicating they might be in a meeting? Does it sound like they are driving their car? Then say so: “It sounds like I’ve caught you in a meeting,” or “It sounds like you’re in your car.” This clearly displays your interest in them, your ability to listen and communicate, and your respect for their time. There is no better way to get their attention – and an honest response – about their availability to converse now.

Etiquette is something that has always been – and will always be – in transition. For example, here are the rules for giving a garden party outlined in the 1941 copy of The New American Etiquette:

All the formality that goes with an afternoon tea in the most fashionable home is a requirement at the formal garden party. The invitation is the same type of “at home” invitation used for teas with the additional words “In the garden” or “Garden party” in the lower left-hand corner. The hour for the garden party is usually four o’clock and the last of the guests will probably leave by seven. 


2 thoughts on “Are You “Polite-ing” Yourself Out of Conversation?”

  1. Great like always Mary Jane.

    I just never understand why anyone would answer their business phone when they are in a meeting or driving.
    If they are in a meeting they are rude to others.
    If they drive their car they know that they won’t be able to write anything important down plus putting lives at risk.
    Rant over. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your rant, Jacqueline. I had someone take my call in a meeting the other day … and I must admit, I’ve done it myself. The reason? I was expecting an important/urgent call. Because I didn’t want to disrupt the meeting too much, I answered the phone immediately, with no pause to see who was calling. Then, when it wasn’t the person I’m was expecting, I had to say “I’m in a meeting. I’ll call you back.” When this happens, while I know it is uncomfortable for the caller, I think it is acceptable. If you need to take a call during a meeting, you should always let everyone know at the start of the meeting and then get up and leave the room to take the call. Of course, there are always people who will take advantage, but I find them to be rare today. And in terms of driving … phone conversations will always be a distraction while driving no matter how easy car manufacturers make the blue tooth capabilities. And often the sound is dreadful, making for inadequate communication. But I think this will remain an issue now until we are all in driver-less cars. 🙂


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