15 Early Telephone Etiquette Rules We Should Bring Back

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Modern phones do just about everything, so it's easy to forget that they can make actual calls, too. Take this opportunity to brush up on some old-fashioned phone etiquette from the days when the technology was brand-new—this way, you won't be caught off-guard next time someone actually dials your number to give you a ring.

1. Don’t say “hello,” it’s a waste of time.

The practice of saying “hello” at the beginning of every call was thought to be so superfluous that British phone authorities included instructions in their guidebooks in the 1920s to advise people not to use the greeting. “Hello” should be implied, they figured, and the extra time used to issue the pleasantry tied up phone lines. Modern day fans of getting to the point will surely agree.

2. Take Alexander Graham Bell’s Advice.

Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell suggested a different greeting for use on his creation: “Ahoy.” It didn’t catch on, but it’s certainly more fun to say than “hello.” We’re sure Bell would have appreciated you following his lead.

3. Always be ready to talk when you call someone.

A worrying practice in the early 20th century saw folks placing calls and then leaving their telephones to go about their other business, often making a family member or servant tell the person on the other line to wait for the lengthy process of completing the call. If you don’t have time to call someone, don’t call them.

4. Never invite someone to a party over the telephone.

At the turn of the 20th century, it was considered rude to invite someone to a shindig over the phone. Real mail should be used, etiquette experts insisted, as the new technology wasn’t becoming of something as important as a party. The permanence of paper post also gave recipients a record and reminder of where and when the get-together will be held.

5. But if you are, you should also reply by phone.

If someone breaks rule number four, it is up to you to adhere to their faux pas and RSVP via telephone. It’s only fair.

6. Never ask, “Who are you?”

While caller ID may have done away with this problem, early phone etiquette guides instructed people to guess who was calling rather than ask directly. Their reasoning—that the question “Who are you?” is belittling—still makes sense today.

7. Resolve all arguments by telephone.

An early 20th century phone guide for women advised them to handle all quarrels by telephone. According to the guide, the ability to immediately connect with someone over the phone prevented both parties from stewing over the offending matter on their own, which only makes things worse.

8. Don’t swear.

In some telephone networks in the 1910s, using profane language could result in a fine (or even a trip to court!). Keep it polite, folks.

9. Mind that facial hair.

In an effort to encourage people to speak more clearly into their telephones, one California service had to remind male users to keep their mustaches out of the mouthpiece’s opening.

10. Say your telephone number when you answer the phone.

It was a good method to ensure folks had the right number. Time-consuming, yes, but nowadays it’d be a nice way to remind ourselves of our own numbers, something that often gets lost in the age of digital phonebooks.

11. Don’t be afraid to tell someone to zip it.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, it wasn’t considered rude to stop someone mid-sentence to tell them you were done with the conversation. In fact, a phone service issued a suggested phrase to use: “I’m sorry, but I have to stop now. Thank you for calling.”

12. Keep your mouth one and a half inches from the receiver.

This was calculated to be the ideal distance to ensure the best sound quality. Anything that eliminates speakerphone shouting is still advisable today.

13. Pay attention.

This should have been a no-brainer then and it should be a no-brainer now, but phone companies had to remind people to focus on the conversation, not their cigar or newspaper. That reminder is still needed today (except for the cigar and newspaper part…).

14. Don’t call before 9 a.m.…

Unless instructed to by the call’s recipient.

15. … and don’t call after 9 p.m.

Staying off the phone in general past that hour (which means no email, texting, etc.…) will be a boon to your sleep schedule.

Whether you say “hello” or “ahoy,” GEICO’s customer service will always be a pleasure thanks to their impeccable telephone manners.

January 15, 2015 - 12:15am
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