The Sound of Judgment

woman talking on the phone at desk

My husband, David, has an old sailing buddy who is very diligent about staying in touch. He usually calls every weekend to hear how we are doing and share a few stories from his own world. He’s in his 80s now, has some complicated health issues and, while he remains unaware, is definitely starting to have some memory issues.

As for many, many people, the pandemic lockdowns were very difficult. As 2020 began, he’d just moved from his spacious home and a neighbourhood he loved into an apartment. And of course, he spent hours, days and weeks alone.

I’ve made it my aim to call him first. He is always so delighted when I do. But often, no matter who is calling who, our messages go to voicemail. And this has reminded me of phone etiquette that, when forgotten, can negatively impact both business and personal conversations.

What is this bit of phone etiquette? Are you ignoring it in your phone calls?

When I leave a voicemail for David’s friend it may be days, or even a week, before he calls back. While there’s no need, he always apologizes. When he leaves a voicemail for me, and I don’t call back promptly, he always starts our conversation with, “Well, I left you a message.”

I don’t take offence; I know his backstory. But I still hear the judgement in his voice, that he’s keeping score. It always makes me feel guilty and that I’m not doing enough for him.

At the same time, I’m monitoring the proactive phone calls of several clients. There’s no denying that this vital activity involves a lot of voicemail messages. And, when the person is finally reached, this same phrasing crops up. It can sound like “I’m following up on messages I’ve left you” or “I left you a message last week” or even “I’ve been trying to reach you”.

Here’s the rule – the etiquette: Never refer to previous attempts to reach someone. You don’t know their story but you can assume they are busy. Returning your call didn’t make the top of their priority list. Or perhaps they really did forget.

Starting a conversation by mentioning previous unreturned calls is experienced as judgment, even though you likely don’t mean it that way.

When you reach someone on the phone, regardless of how many messages you’ve left, be grateful. So many of our lives are a whirlwind of activity, decisions and obligations that this moment, the one where two people are having a phone conversation, is remarkable. Begin with the reason for your call, then relax and enjoy what transpires.

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2 thoughts on “The Sound of Judgment”

  1. I love this. I hadn’t thought about it in such a concrete way but it definitely sounds judgmental when callers refer to a previously left message. Thank you. I’m going to make sure I don’t do this!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Janet. This is really something we don’t realize until it happens to us – until someone comments on our “inaction”, and we feel judged, as if we couldha, shouldha done better. Yet most of us are always doing our best, right?

      Reply

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