Etiquette Rules: Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You

Normally I have little patience for the Washington Compost, but a recent item has made the rounds in certain communities: new rules for telephone etiquette. And I have to say I’m in agreement with most of them, and not just for my own reasons.

One of the biggest reasons for new rules is phone anxiety aka telephobia, which is a real thing.   (From Popular Science: “Phone anxiety is real—and solvable”.) Some people have difficulty speaking on the phone, even those able to speak in front of large groups.  Whether it’s the disembodied voice or the intrusiveness of a ringing phone, it affects some people.  Sending a text isn’t a hardship, and unlike a call, it’s not a demand for an instant response.  From the Washington Post:

The new phone call etiquette: Text first and never leave a voice mail

September 25, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

Phone calls have been around for 147 years, the iPhone 16 years and FaceTime video voice mails about a week.

Not surprisingly, how we make calls has changed drastically alongside advances in technology. Now people can have conversations in public on their smartwatches, see voice mails transcribed in real time and dial internationally midday without stressing about the cost.

The phone norms also change quickly, causing some people to feel left behind or confused. The unwritten rules of chatting on the phone differ wildly between generations, leading to misunderstandings and frustration on all sides.

We spoke to an etiquette expert and people of all ages about their own phone pet peeves to come up with the following guidance to help everyone navigate phone calls in 2023.

These will vary depending on your relationship, your age and the context of the call. The closer you are to someone, the less the rules apply. Go ahead, FaceTime your mom with no warning while brushing your teeth.

Their list of new rules is below the fold, with shortened versions written by myself (to avoid mass copying and pasting of the original and copyright issues).

Don’t leave a voice mail: Use voice for “Hi, I miss you”.  Anything long or important, send a text.

Text before calling:   Be accomodating.  Some people can’t answer or need to get ready.

You don’t need to answer the phone: People may not be available, won’t have time to talk or be in a place where they can.  Or they’re busy.  When I’m at work, I cannot respond to anything coming through on my phone.

Emotions are for voice, facts are for text: Emotion and tone in words can go wrong in written words.

Unless it’s an emergency, please hold: You’re not entitled to a response.  If they don’t answer, send a text and wait.

Use video voice mails judiciously: Again, emotion, among other reasons.  People who don’t like voice mail won’t like video mail either.

Stay still for video calls: Moving around can be disorienting or cause motion sickness in viewers.

Don’t use speakerphone in public: If you can’t figure out why, you shouldn’t be allowed a cellphone.

Start screening calls again: Harassing calls, spam calls, unknown number, there’s lots of valid reasons to screen calls.  If someone makes a voice call, I know instantly that they don’t know me and I can ignore them.

Don’t stop talking on the phone: This one I’m not on board with. For some, it’s not a choice.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, not everyone can use a phone.  Before text messaging, people with hearing impairment had to be home to receive and send messages through TTY machines and operators.  Today, text messaging means instant communication anywhere, and the ability to communicate with those who can hear without needing an operator.

You.  Would.  Not.  Believe.  how many government offices and businesses refuse to offer any means of communication other than phone calls, that refuse to give service if you can’t make a voice call.  They refuse to offer cell numbers where texts can be sent, and they won’t answer emails.\

Beyond Tone: How Deaf People Helped Change Texting Over The Years

Some people may say, “What’s the big deal, it’s just a phone call!”  But think back to when phones first came into people’s homes.  If a knock on the door from an unwelcome or unexpected visitor was considered an intrusion into your home, imagine the response to the new phone inside your house.  Someone was able to call and enter inside your home and demand your attention.  How disconcerting and intimidating was that in 1923?  Then compare it to a letter from the postal service, dropped into your mail slot.  People could read and reply to mail in their own time (or ignore it), and the sender would have to wait for that response.

Letter mail 100-150 years ago was like text messaging today: the non-stressful and respectful way to send a message.  We are exactly back where we were a century ago, entitled and impatient people demanding instant responses.  From Elon University:

1870s – 1940s: Telephone

Their key points, recorded by Ithiel de Sola Pool in his 1983 book “Forecasting the Telephone,” mirror nearly precisely what was later predicted about the impact of the internet.

For example, people said the telephone would: help further democracy; be a tool for grassroots organizers; lead to additional advances in networked communications; allow social decentralization, resulting in a movement out of cities and more flexible work arrangements; change marketing and politics; alter the ways in which wars are fought; cause the postal service to lose business; open up new job opportunities; allow more public feedback; make the world smaller, increasing contact between peoples of all nations and thus fostering world peace; increase crime and aid criminals; be an aid for physicians, police, fire, and emergency workers; be a valuable tool for journalists; bring people closer together, decreasing loneliness and building new communities; inspire a decline in the art of writing; have an impact on language patterns and introduce new words; and someday lead to an advanced form of the transmission of intelligence.

Privacy was also a major concern. As is the case with the Internet, the telephone worked to improve privacy while simultaneously leaving people open to invasions of their privacy. In the beginning days of the telephone, people would often have to journey to the local general store or some other central point to be able to make and receive calls. Most homes weren’t wired together, and eavesdroppers could hear you conduct your personal business as you used a public phone. Switchboard operators who connected the calls would also regularly invade people’s privacy. The early house-to-house phone systems were often “party lines” on which a number of families would receive calls, and others were free to listen in and often chose to do so.

Predicably, this has turned into another boomer/GenX versus Millennial/GenZ debate.  Watch this item from CTV news, some loud and entitled man criticizing younger people for “laziness, being soft and emotional”.  I’ll bet he objects to door to door sales and spam phone calls from telemarketers, but when HE wants something, it’s “Now! Now! Now!”  And he says the Millennials are “entitled”?




  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Letter mail 100-150 years ago was like text messaging today: the non-stressful and respectful way to send a message.

    Citation needed.

    In some places, people needed to pay to receive their mail. I recall reading long ago about Sir Walter Scott: as a best-selling novelist, he received countless handwritten manuscripts from would-be writers begging for advice &/or endorsement, and had to pay – by the ounce – for each one. (The standards of “gentlemanliness” did not allow him to refuse receipt.) He did not camp happily.

  2. billseymour says

    Years ago on a blog (before “blog” was a word), the author, Laura Lemay, once wrote, “Email. Send me email. I like email. I hate phones. I kill phones.”  I still quote her to this day.

    If I send you a text message, you can respond at your convenience; if I call you on the phone, you need to stop whatever you’re doing to satisfy my immediate needs.  I think the latter is just plain rude.

  3. seachange says

    Funny you should mention history, because my parents had me late and grew quite old. My parents were born in 1920 and yes a phone call was perceived as intrusive. So I grew up with the idea that you let people know (in person) you were going to call. If it was official business you or they could mail when a call would be acceptable. But you had no *right* to be answered. There weren’t any phone answering machines. Even so sometimes folks would just call.

    There’s sympathy for the deaf, but is there sympathy for those with big fat fumblefingers on dinky little phone keyboards or heck laptop keyboards which seem like they are designed for children if you have very large hands like I do. Or for those with seizures, like I do? Or elderly presbyopic eyes and who can’t find their magnifying glass or reading glasses when the text comes in (always me)? There is sympathy for the anxious, but is there sympathy for the dyslexic who speaks just fine? These rules are one way and one way only.

    Maybe just two rules, don’t be intrusive and don’t be demandypants.

    Is was possible to leave a voice message even then. Fifty years ago my parents taught me to be terse, concise, and accurate. This skill is like an old 120 character Twitter and I remember skill at this was generally admired. Especially since back then it was a party line, and/or it was a person writing it down.

  4. rockwhisperer says

    My mother, born in 1920, was convinced that all phone calls MUST be answered. Even after Husband and I got my parents an answering machine in probably the mid-980s, Mama was determined that if a person was in the house, the phone would be answered live.

    Living an hour and a half away, I was more of the inclination that if I was busy, people could damn well leave a message and I’d get back to them. This was especially true at work, where my office was a cubicle in the 80s, and the conversation noise made it hard to concentrate. However, I was an engineer working on radar simulation systems for flight simulators, which then were walls of equipment with high current loads and LOTS of big fans blowing to cool all that electronic excess. I would grab an unused end of a table out on the test floor and use the fan noise as white noise, so that I could concentrate and get work done. It made me out of touch for phone calls for big parts of my workday. My mother was appalled that her only child was out of phone range for most of my workday.

    When my parents’ health was declining in the 1990s, and I was doing more conventional engineering work for a different employer, Husband and I got our first cell phones. Mama was delighted. She could reach me any time! Well, except that I needed to attend meetings and was taking university extension night classes, and not accepting calls then. She was a very anxious person, and was terribly upset that she couldn’t reach me, in the middle of an afternoon or during an evening when she knew I had class, to tell me about her run-in with a grumpy neighbor.

    Mama died at the end of 2002; Dad made it to the summer of 2006. Without parents to support, and having no children, the pressure is off and I consider a phone call a polite request for my time if I can give it then. Otherwise, leave voicemail. Texts can, but often don’t, need immediate replies. “If you’re still at the store, can you pick up X?” is an immediate text, especially since my response might be, “Just parked in our driveway, you’ll have to get it on your way home tonight”. “Y, Z and I are having lunch on Tuesday at 1:30, join us if you can” can wait until I’ve had a chance to think through what needs to happen for me on Tuesday.