March 11, 2015

Telephone Etiquette and Social Change

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In the second grade, I remember seeing a film in school about how to appropriately answer the telephone. This was way before cell phones came on the market and the phone we learned to answer was presumably the family’s main phone line.

I can still recall some of the lessons. Be polite—say hello first, and allow the caller to introduce himself or herself. If they do not do so after the hello, it is okay to say “who’s calling, please?” The answerer was never to pick up the phone and say “who’s this!?!” as it would sound rude. Interrupting was very bad; instead we should each take turns talking and listening. One was never to hang up without saying goodbye and we were told to be sure that the other party had heard that we were ending the call and said goodbye in response. When in doubt, we were taught, be as polite as possible.

As we were children, and thus considered vulnerable to callers, we were told not to reveal our names or whether our parents were home. If a caller asked for a parent who was not home (yes, it was more acceptable to leave kids home alone then), we were told to say that they could not come to the phone right now and ask to take a message, all while remaining polite. When making calls, we were to politely ask to speak to the person we were calling (“May I please speak with Jane?”), not to call too early or too late, and certainly never during dinner time.

Much has changed since I had this lesson in the 1970s. First, many families do not have land lines now (we didn’t use the term “land line” then, because there was no other kind of phone widely in use), and in those cases there is no general household phone to answer. Because cell phones are individualized, presumably everyone who calls a cell number is calling for that one person and so the introduction need not always be formal.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Second, nearly every phone now has caller id, so we often know who is calling before we decide to answer the phone. We might choose not to answer if we see an unfamiliar number (or a familiar number, for that matter), so there is no need to ask to take a message. Voice mail, email, and text messaging has largely eliminated the pen paper phone message too.

Because of the spotty cell reception in my neighborhood, we have a land line, which regularly receives calls from telemarketers despite being listed on the government’s Do Not Call Registry. We get calls from people claiming to be contractors wanting to come to our home to perform work (or to rob us, I’m not sure what their real intentions are), recorded calls from scammers trying to get our credit card numbers, callers selling solar panels, carpet cleaning, and other services. All of these calls are illegal since we are on the do not call list, so when the phone rings and I don’t recognize the number I get angry. Mostly I just ignore the call, but sometimes I answer just to tell them to quit calling here.

When this happens, I drop all of my second grade telephone etiquette lessons. Their calls are illegal, after all, sometimes attempts to steal from us, and are often received during dinner time. If it’s a person and not a recording, they start by asking my name. I learned in second grade to always get the caller’s name before giving mine, and so I ask who they are. They often then read from a script until I interrupt them; “Why are you calling?” I’ll ask, and after they tell me I remind them that I am on the Do Not Call Registry and they should never call this number again. I’m not always polite at this point. Sometimes the caller is apologetic, but sometimes they don’t even listen and continue with their script, and so I hang up on them.

In the second grade, my phone behavior would have been considered appalling, but not so in today’s context (except some might wonder why I even bother to answer the phone when the mystery numbers appear). As phones have become increasingly personal devices that are far more individualized than the mass-issued Bell telephone of the 1970s was, a stranger calling is less of a threat than an intrusion into private space.

Today we choose our phone from an endless variety, customize its features, and use it for all sorts of other things, much more than making calls in many cases. Phones tend to be portals to an individual’s private space rather than connecting the family to the public, as they were in the recent past. Children’s use of their parents’ phones likely has little to do with the actual calling feature, and they might take very different lessons on appropriate phone behavior.

If a phone etiquette lesson were to be given to second graders today, how might it be different? What does telephone etiquette teach us about the context of socialization and social change?


I really enjoyed this post. I plan to use it with my own students at EFSC. Thanks.

good one. thanks.

This was a great read. I know that the use of phones and types of phones have changed a lot over the years, but I've never thought about telephone etiquette changing. I would be the same way with a telemarketer. This is something to think about. Thanks for sharing.

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