Alexander Graham Hell Featured

9:58am EDT July 22, 2002

Forget Y2K. This should be the year that we figure out a new code of telephone etiquette.

Technology continues to outstrip our ability to come up with common courtesies that are consistent with our past practices, yet meet the demands and opportunities which new gadgets offer. That fact is nowhere illustrated more clearly than by modern telephone systems.

I used to work in a hospital public relations department where my boss made answering the telephone the most important task. The hospital, like many other businesses, must have spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on a sophisticated phone system that took voice messages, provided a display to let you know who was calling and other features that, despite their utility, escape me at the moment.

One day, my boss got a jab from her boss, a sardonic administrator who decided that a human being, not a machine, should always answer the telephone in our office. No one was to go into the automated messaging system until he spoke with a human being first. Here is where the absurdity begins.

Our receptionist, a dutiful woman determined to be perfectly compliant, thereafter would tear off in full gallop as soon as the telephone ringer summoned, endangering everything and everyone in her path. That meant that any face-to-face conversation with her, no matter how important, would be cut off and deferred until the incoming call was completed.

Sometimes another call would beckon while she was on the first, in which case she would cut off the first caller in mid-sentence and put that person on hold so she could take the second call. Often the result was that a couple of callers, plus the frustrated co-worker in the office, were left hanging in limbo while the inquiries were answered or calls routed.

All too often, the very people who were to be served by the system found themselves on hold because the person who answered the phone had to take another call.

That’s when it hit me: If these things are so great and we’re willing to spend lots of money on them, why do we break our necks to avoid using them?

In the interest of getting a dialogue started to come up with reasonable standards for the use of the telephone, I’ll throw out a few suggestions:

  • The decision to interrupt an in-person conversation to answer the telephone should be made applying the same criteria that one would use if someone were to turn up at your office unannounced. Of course you need to be flexible. There are calls that demand immediate attention and there are in-person conversations that are less than vital. Just use a little horse sense.

  • Unless you’re expecting to hear from Bill Gates, let incoming calls slip into your automated system when you are on another call. Retrieve them promptly and respond as soon as possible, just as you would if your receptionist handed you a message she took when you were out to lunch.

When you reach an automated system:

  • Follow closely the instructions for leaving a message. Provide details, but avoid relating your life story to a machine or a human.

  • Don’t exaggerate to get results. A public relations person recently left a message at our office and described her call as urgent. In fact, it was a routine pitch for her client.

I’d like to hear your suggestions for a better telephone code of conduct, including reasons why my thinking might be short-circuited. You can, of course, call me at (412) 321-6050, where you will get either me, another courteous human being or our automated system, send e-mail to, or write to SBN, 800 Vinial St., Suite 208-B, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15212. Ray Marano is associate editor of SBN Pittsburgh. Former employers have harbored concerns about his radical ideas concerning use of the telephone.