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, unplanned 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.
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 (see related resources below), 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.
Lately, however, it seems more people are just picking up the phone and dialing rather than arranging calls in advance. As a recipient of those calls, I can't say enough about what a pain it is. I know that part of my frustration stems from three critical factors - I'm an introvert, I need to concentrate on what I'm doing when I work, and I'm trying to be more 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:
1. 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).
2. It's Disruptive
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 is enough to interrupt his or her train of thought and impair concentration.
3. 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. I started writing this blog post on a Sunday morning, out of aggravation. I had a note from someone who phoned me, and I wanted to message her back. She left a phone number in her voicemail, but I can't call her. And I wasted at least 10 minutes trying - unsuccessfully - to find an easy way to contact her via LinkedIn or email. Now my only option is to try to find time to call her back next week, and run 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 oversight.
Please Think Before You Dial
I'm not saying that all unplanned 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.
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, unplanned 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 this related LinkedIn poll, as well as this one, 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 tool for the task" is one way we can all help each other do that.
Food for thought...
- Courtney Shelton Hunt
PS - As I was finalizing this post, the phone rang. I didn't know the caller, but I could tell from caller id it was a prospective client. I answered the call. : )