On the Clock

Phone Etiquette in the 21st Century

Being available 24/7 has spurred new rules for an old-fashioned form of communication.

Thomas was finishing up dinner when he got a call from his boss’s boss—the CEO—who had just arrived in town and left a message. Thomas called her back, at around 8 p.m., but it went to voicemail. Ten minutes later, he called his friend Charlie to ask him for advice. “I don’t want to pester her, but I also don’t want her to think I’m blowing her off,” Thomas told Charlie. “When do I call her again?”

The answer? He doesn’t. Thomas can send a text message or an email to prove in writing that he responded, but he doesn’t need to bug his boss beyond what’s necessary.  

With more workers tethered to their cell phones—which often are paid for by the company to ensure bosses, like Thomas’s, can get in touch with employees at any moment—the old-fashioned communication of dialing has become fraught with new landmines. Professionals feel they must have their phones on them at all times, even when they go to the bathroom, to ensure they don’t miss a call. More cell phone towers spanning the country and the globe mean you can take a work call almost anywhere, though that isn’t necessarily wise. And it’s not uncommon for us to all have heavier handbags and pockets these days because we’re carrying two phones—one personal, and one professional.

The average American checks his or her phone 47 times a day.

But the onslaught of this instantaneous technology has created scenarios that require a new type of etiquette. The average American now checks his or her phone 47 times a day, spending a total of four hours on the device daily. It’s no wonder there are plenty of studies bemoaning our lack of productivity, the disruption to our sleep, and the rise of relationship problems from what some people call “pphubbing”—partner phone snubbing. Below, a cheat sheet on the new rules of the telephone.

Beware of background noise.

Working remotely has its perks, including being able to take that 11 a.m. weekly planning call in the park. But to do so professionally, you have to know your surroundings—and how they come off to others on the line. Using headphones, while convenient, can sometimes make you sound distant and pick up extra background noise. And that sound that coming out of nowhere—the car horn beeping or the fire engine whizzing by—can totally disrupt the flow of a call. “Because people take calls from lots of different places now, it’s a common courtesy to either mute when you’re not talking or let people know ahead of time where you’ll be so they can understand the context,” says Kristi Hedges, founder of The Hedges Company in Arlington, Virginia. Similarly irritating is the speaker phone: to you, it may sound quiet, but to callers on the other end? They probably can hear the laundry tumbling in the background.

Give yourself voice lessons.

The way we sound in person is often different from how we sound on the phone, in part because cell phones don’t always reproduce the full range of our voices. There’s also the fact that most people hate the sound of their own voice because we hear it differently than outsiders, thanks to vibrations in our heads that set off the vocal chords. Of course, you can work on sounding more professional by recording yourself and playing it back, to scrutinize whether your nervous giggle or habit of saying “yeah” too often needs some editing.

Know the level of urgency.

One of the best ways to avoid a smartphone faux pas is to set ground rules upfront of what’s urgent and what’s not. “If there is no expectation then the assumption is ASAP,” Hedges says. If you don’t want to make people feel that way, tell them it isn’t urgent or establish levels of importance; maybe an email can be answered in due course, but a text message means it’s urgent. “Oftentimes, people don’t expect an immediate reply,” Hedges says. “It’s just that they’re sending you something when they think about it.”

Back yourself up.

Once you’ve decided how to respond to a call, text, or email, it’s a good idea to back up your action. If you called back your boss but didn’t leave a voicemail, you can also email her saying you tried to reach her. Or you could send a text to say you saw you missed her call, but you were in the middle of a meeting. That way, your boss knows you’re paying attention, and if she calls you out for not answering the phone, you can defend yourself by showing your written attempt to get in touch.

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