Phone Etiquette in the Digital Era: 3 Reasons to Think before You Dial
(December 18, 2013) In the Digital Era, new definitions of acceptable and unacceptable behavior have to address not only new ways of communicating, but traditional forms as well. This post offers three reasons why unsolicited, unscheduled phone calls are a generally a poor practice and reinforces the idea that we must constantly think about the best ways to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of our communications, for both ourselves and others.
This is an updated version of a classic SMinOrgs S.M.A.R.T. Blog post from March 2012. As with all of the posts we've elected to transfer to the new blog, its ideas and suggestions are still valid today.
As the Digital Era continues to evolve, so do our definitions of rude and inconsiderate behavior and the necessary rules of etiquette to address them. And just as we must develop normative expectations associated with new methods of communication, we must also redefine the boundaries of acceptable practice for traditional methods, like the phone. In addition to thinking before we "hit send" or "post that status update" or "tweet," we should also think before we "dial." The key to effective communication is to select the right medium for our messages, to focus on the target of our message more than ourselves, and to consider the consequences (for both ourselves and others) before we act.
I admit I'm not a big fan of the telephone. I don't mind talking on it, but I think it's a terrible way to initiate dialogue - especially in a professional context, and especially when there are so many better alternatives. In the Digital Era, it's equivalent to the unexpected drop-by.
Unfortunately, however, there are still a lot of folks who don't share my perspective. They regularly pick up the phone and dial rather than arranging calls in advance. As a recipient of those calls, I can't say emphasize enough what a pain it is. I know that part of my frustration stems from three critical factors - I'm an introvert, I concentrate intensively when I'm working, and I strive to be very disciplined with my time - but even if those things weren't true I still believe out-of-the-blue phoning is a poor practice. Here are three reasons why.
It's Not Mutually Convenient
People phone when it's convenient for them, but they don't necessarily consider whether it's convenient for the person they're calling. Sometimes they ask, "Is this a good time to talk?" but more often than not they just dive into the reason for their call. And when they do remember to ask, they put the receiver in the awkward position of seeming rude or unfriendly if the answer is "no." Plus, the receiver then has to spend time trying to reschedule, either in the moment or later (see #3).
We hear lots of talk about how people are distracted by newer forms of communication like email and texts and instant messages, but phone calls can be more disruptive because they're harder to mute. Even when a person decides to not take any calls, the ringing alone (especially on a landline, which is less convenient to mute) is enough to interrupt his or her train of thought and impair concentration.
It's Time Consuming and Inefficient
(especially for asynchronous communication)
It may only be seconds, but it takes much more time to process a voicemail message than it does a text-based message of some sort. This is especially true when the call comes from someone you've never heard from before or don't know very well. You have to dial into the mailbox, listen to the message, find a pen, write down the contact information... And if the message isn't clear, you may have to listen to segments of it over (and over). What was that last name? What that a 9 or a 1 in that phone number?
Plus, the contact information is often incomplete. People may leave one or two phone numbers, but they don't usually offer their email address. Sometimes it makes more sense (and is more convenient) to return a message via email or under circumstances when calling is not a viable option (e.g., in the evening, while traveling). I was initially inspired to write this blog post on a Sunday morning, out of aggravation. I had a note from someone who had phoned me, and I wanted to message her back. She left a phone number in her voicemail, but I couldn't call her. And I wasted at least 10 minutes trying - unsuccessfully - to find an easy way to contact her via LinkedIn or email. My only option was to try to find time to call her back the following week, running the very real risk of continuing the game of phone tag she started. Grrr!
Finally, there's the risk that the note we write the message on gets lost, or we forget about it. Yes, that can happen with emails and texts too, but those methods are less vulnerable to being overlooked.
Please Think Before You Dial
I'm not saying that all unscheduled calls are bad or wrong - or even unnecessary. Current and prospective clients and customers, as well as bosses, don't really need to be concerned about whether they're calling at a mutually convenient time, and professionals who provide services to others need to be prepared to have their time and concentration disrupted when those calls come in. And of course there are emergency situations, emotionally-charged circumstances in which text-based communication can be misconstrued, and times when a quick phone dialogue is more effective than the unproductive back-and-forth of email or other text-based messaging.
What I'm really talking about is the practice of calling people out of the blue rather than sending them a text-based message first. Especially when the communication is between peers, from a service provider to a current/prospective client, and/or to a current/prospective business partner, the unsolicited, unscheduled call is a relatively poor method of reaching out that can cause more harm than good.
Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just a pet peeve. Perhaps, but the results of a couple of LinkedIn polls around the time I wrote the original post seem to indicate that I'm not the only person who generally prefers text-based communication to phone calls. In our dynamic, time-challenged, and over-committed lives, we're all striving to maximize efficiency and effectiveness - and choosing the right method of communication is one way we can all help each other do that.
Food for thought...