Building and maintaining friendships demands a number of important skills. A frequently overlooked one involves telephone etiquette. By making mistakes in this area, you could be inadvertently annoying existing friends and chasing away new ones. Here are the five worst offenses:
1. Forgetting to “clear” the call
When a friend answers the phone in response to your call, remember to first identify yourself and ask about your timing. Callers often zoom ahead to their own agenda, failing to think they might be disturbing their friends.
Example: “Hi Bill, this is Ron. I just called to chat and catch up. Is this an okay time to talk?”
Make sure to identify yourself because some folks aren’t good at recognizing voices–especially if you’ve just met–and they may feel uncomfortable having to guess. More problematic, when you don’t ask if friends are free to talk, you’ve put them in the awkward position of having to interrupt and explain that they can’t stay on the phone.
2. Abusing call waiting
No one likes to feel discounted, but call-waiting users often make folks feel that way. When the friends of an acquaintance of mine ask him to hold for call waiting, he responds: “Hey, what am I, chopped liver?” I agree. I believe that if you reached me by phone, you got there first, and I owe you a completed call.
If you feel you must use call waiting, do two things. First, limit the number of interruptions. I know folks who leave the phone three and four times during a conversation to check incoming calls. As I sit twiddling my thumbs, I fight the urge to hang up in disgust.
Second, inform the person already on line with you that you’re waiting for an important call and you’ll have to interrupt when it comes in. That way, your friend is forewarned and hopefully will not feel dismissed.
Some folks use call waiting for valid reasons. A relative may be in poor health, or an ongoing crisis may demand their immediate availability. They may be expecting a guest who will be calling about arrival times or asking for directions.
Other people, I suspect, respond obsessively to the call-waiting beep out of fear they’ll miss something. I sometimes tease a friend who can’t ignore the beep, “You better hurry–you don’t want to miss out on that 200 million dollars from Publisher’s Clearing House!”
3. Talking nonstop
Some people have difficulty ending a phone call. We often dread hearing from them, particularly when we have things to do. I occasionally talk to acquaintances who simply do not know how to put a period at the end of a sentence. They connect every statement to the next with the word “and,” thoughtlessly preventing an equal exchange. The answering machine’s screening option was invented for such folks.
Typically, marathon talkers ignore hang-up cues. When we try to end the conversation, they often disregard our efforts, failing to recognize the generally accepted signals people use when they want to get off the phone. Here are a couple of examples:
“So, okay, Karen, I’m really glad you called. It’s been a treat hearing from you.”
“Well, Steve, this was fun! Let’s talk again soon.”
Notice the phrases in bold. Using the past tense is the most common way to let others know you want to end a call.
I feel trapped whenever someone ignores the cues and continues to broach new topics. It’s a tough dilemma because I don’t want to be rude, but I do want to get off the phone.
People are marathon talkers for various reasons, including feeling lonely or bored, wanting to ventilate or gossip, or needing an audience to entertain. Whatever the reason, they predictably leave numerous voice mail messages for folks who are, mysteriously, almost always out of the house.
Many people pride themselves on their ability to do additional “productive” things while on the phone. Some can pull it off and their phone partners don’t notice their split focus, but most can’t.
Here are the giveaways: They don’t always track conversation points appropriately, have an intermittent vague or distant tone of voice, and make noise doing whatever it is they’re doing. I’ve heard paper ripping (going through their mail), water running (doing dishes), babies crying (changing diapers or feeding), and–I kid you not–the sound of tinkling (sitting on the pot).
Most of us prefer chatting with people who can give us their undivided attention.
5. Misusing voice mail
Without doubt, voice mail is a great convenience, but many people unknowingly annoy the heck out of their friends by abusing it. Here are a few guidelines:
As with person-to-person calls, always begin your message by identifying yourself, and then be brief. Most people don’t want to hear long, droning messages. They want a quick one they can write down and act on.
Also, do your best to structure your message to avoid unnecessary return calls. For example, if you want to change the time of an appointment, say the following: “Kathy, I’d like to change our seven o’clock appointment to seven-thirty. If that’s OK, don’t call back. If not, call me at 555-4343 and we’ll figure something out.”
Leave your phone number every time–not everyone has memorized it–and state it slowly. Be sure to leave the correct number if you’re somewhere other than your home and you don’t have your cell phone.
Since most folks already know how voice mail works, use a short greeting. I once returned a call to a client whose greeting consisted of her five-year-old snapping his fingers and humming the entire theme to the Partridge Family TV show–twice. I was trapped in phone hell.
For years, my Uncle Tony offered a brief, reassuring message: “You know what to do. Do it.”
My all time favorite, however, is the phone message of a musician friend. He wins the brevity prize when he says, “Your solo!”