The 7 Modern Rules of Phone Etiquette

woman talking on the phone at work

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

In today’s world phones are everything: we use them to check our email, schedule appointments, play games, pay bills, share our pictures and text our friends and family. They’re such a big part of our lives that there’s even a word for smartphone addiction: nomophobia. This has more to do with being hyperconnected in the digital world, through apps and other online features our phones bring, than missing out on talking to actual human beings. 

Which brings me to my next point: phone etiquette has fallen by the wayside. In the digital age, we so rarely use our phones to actually talk to people (meaning have a conversation with our voices, not just by text), that some of us barely even know how. But even in this world, it’s still essential to understand the proper rules of using our phones to make calls.

What is the importance of telephone etiquette?

One important reason why you need to prioritize phone etiquette is for professional purposes. Whether you’re making a sales call, interviewing for a new job or simply answering the phone at your office, how you do it matters. This is often the first impression you’re leaving with the person on the other line, and in business contexts, those impressions matter — a lot. What might seem like the mildest gaff could turn a customer away from your company forever. You could botch that all-important screening interview because you don’t know how to conduct yourself properly on the phone. And so on.

But phone etiquette also matters for personal calls. With 55% of communication coming from body language, according to Strategic Government Resources, conveying the right tone with only your voice matters. For example, if you’re newly dating someone, you or the other person might want to talk on the phone on nights you don’t see each other. You also probably call your parents from time to time — and you better believe if you forget to call on Mother’s Day, your mom is not going to be pleased. You still need to schedule some appointments on the phone and arrange to pick up prescriptions. The point is, phone calls are not an obsolete form of communication, at least not yet. So, it's important to understand how to make them properly and politely.

Making and receiving calls (personally and professionally).

1. Go outside if you’re taking or making a personal call at work.

While it may not be necessary to put your phone on silent at work (although you know your office better than I do), you should avoid having loud conversations in your cubicle or out in the open in general. If you have an office, it may suffice to simply close your door, unless sound carries. Otherwise, go outside (not just into the building lobby) before sharing details of your personal life with your entire office.

2. During meetings, appointments or other events, put your phone on silent.

Don’t just silence your phone — also put it out of sight, out of mind. It's highly unprofessional to constantly check your phone or have it buzz during a meeting. It’s also pretty rude to do it during a date or even when you’re having drinks with a close friend. While many people put their phone on the table, this can be a huge distraction and tells the other person that you’re not prioritizing your time with them. This is also true if you’re in a class — and it goes without saying that you should never have your phone out and making noise during an interview.

3. Speak softly and avoid certain language and topics in public spaces.

Nobody around you needs or wants to hear your private business. If you need to make a call in public, speak softly so that only the other person can hear you. You should also keep your conversations appropriate and avoid sharing too many personal details. You never know who might be around — like children.

4. If you need to talk while driving, use Bluetooth.

Your hands belong on the steering wheel. If you must take a call while driving, don’t use one of them to hold the phone; use Bluetooth to speak hands-free. Avoid checking apps (that includes maps) while driving, too — I’ve seen way too many people do this. And never, ever text while driving. Not only is this illegal, but it’s also incredibly dangerous. 

5. Avoid making or receiving calls in certain establishments and institutions.

Such as theaters, places of worship, public transit and libraries. Many of these places are meant to be ultra-quiet, and it’s rude to others, not to mention disrespectful to the establishment and its workers. 

6. Never keep your conversation going if you’re making a purchase.

If you’re buying something at a store, stop your conversation to complete the transaction. It’s rude to the salesperson or cashier if they’re trying to help you with your purchase and you’re continuing to talk to someone else, as well as to the other people in line behind you. 

7. Excuse yourself in an emergency.

There are some instances in which you simply need to take a call. In the case of an emergency, simply excuse yourself from your situation and tell the other person, “My apologies, this is an emergency and I need to take this.” They will understand. 

Making and receiving calls as part of a job.

Calls are a regular part of some people’s jobs, such as those who work in customer service, sales representatives and entrepreneurs or business owners. Here’s how to do it professionally.

1. Answer promptly.

Within three or four rings is ideal. This shows that the person’s call matters to you and will prevent them from hanging up before you answer. You could lose business if you let the call go to voicemail or don't answer quickly enough. If you do miss a call and they leave a voicemail, return it as soon as possible.

2. State your name before all else.

Even if you didn’t make the call, you should introduce yourself so that the person on the other line know who they’re speaking to. A simple, “Hi, this is so-and-so” will do the trick. As always, be polite and professional. Your business may also prefer you add the name of the company and ask how you can assist. 

3. Listen to the person at the other end.

Practice active listening so you really understand the other person’s concern. You might miss key information if you’re doodling on a notepad or letting your mind wander. You don’t want to have to ask a customer or business associate to repeat herself because you weren’t paying attention. If the problem is particularly complex, you might want to take notes, too. 

4. Show the customer that you care.

That means empathizing with their concern, even if it seems silly to you. Use words and phrases like “I understand” and “I apologize for such-and-such” even if you believe the customer to be at fault.

5. Be patient.

It can be difficult to be patient if the other person is clearly in the wrong, but you’ll only make the issue worse — and turn them away from your business — if you lose your temper. The customer or contact may be very frustrated and taking it out on you, which isn’t fair, but it is your job to help them feel better about the situation in the end. Once the call is finished, ask if the solution was helpful and satisfactory. If it wasn't, see how you can assist further.

6. Watch your body language.

Yes, even on the phone. Good posture will help you feel more professional and confident, while a smile on your face will carry over into the tone of your voice.

7. Articulate your words.

Avoid mumbling, speaking too softly and talking quickly. Make sure your words are clear and that your tone is upbeat and friendly. 

Phone etiquette faux pas.

• Letting your phone ring at an inopportune time.

At a funeral or religious service? Your phone should be on silent. Business meetings and movies are also bad times to have your phone ring.

• Calling at inopportune times.

Even for personal calls, avoid calling too late or too early, unless you know the other person very well and know they’ll be awake.

• Interrupting.

Never interrupt the other person when they’re talking (although arguments do happen…). This is just rude. If it’s a customer or business contact, it’s especially rude and could put them off your business.

• Speaking loudly or using speakerphone in public.

Again, no one needs to hear your private business. 

• Making or taking calls when you should be engaging with other people.

If you’re at dinner, even if it’s with a friend, or spending time with someone else in any context, don’t answer your phone unless it’s absolutely urgent.

• Waiting too long to return a call.

Don’t wait days and days to return a text or call. For one, you’ll probably forget. For another, it may make the other person anxious or upset.

How do you answer the phone properly?

You’ll answer calls differently based on whether they’re personal or professional, but generally speaking, you should:

• Answer promptly.

• State your name (if it’s a family member or friend calling on the other line, this is probably unnecessary).

• Pause before launching into what you have to say.

• Use the right tone in context.

• Be polite and friendly.

• In a business context, ask how you can help.

History of phone etiquette.

Phone etiquette has evolved considerably since the phone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell in the 19th century. Here are some interesting facts about its history.

• Answering “Hello” was controversial. Alexander Graham Bell preferred “Ahoy,” for example. In 1910, his Telephone Engineer magazine ran a contest in search of the best essay about phone etiquette. The winning essay included this passage:

"Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out 'Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?' No, one should open conversations with phrases such as 'Mr. Wood, of Curtis and Sons, wishes to talk with Mr. White...' without any unnecessary and undignified 'Hellos.”

• Early in telephone usage, some people feared that the invention was contributing to a ruder society, with a New York Times writer claiming, “The general use of the telephone, instead of promoting civility and courtesy, is the means of the fast dying out of what little we have left.”

• A telephone etiquette guide published in the 1950s contains all sorts of interesting rules. For one, it advised people to apologize when they received a wrong call. It also suggested that users alert others when they were leaving the office. 

• Emily Post, etiquette expert, advised people to send and receive invitations to events via telephone. 

Who should hang up the phone first?

In today’s age, people generally hang up around the same time. But in a business context, it’s better to let the customer hang up first, once you know that the issue has been resolved. You should also ask for their number at the beginning of the conversation in case you get disconnected. 

How can I get better at phone etiquette?

Pay attention to how you speak on the phone if you’re concerned about your phone etiquette. Do you say “um” a lot? Do you take phone calls at the table? Awareness is the key to solving the issue. Review these rules and faux and use them for guidance as well. You may also choose to ask close friends and family members how you come off on the phone, and if they offer constructive criticism or suggestions, keep them in mind in your other conversations. 

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