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Phone Call Etiquette Changed? Who Knew?

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Even 147 years after the telephone was invented, rules of phone call etiquette are still evolving, especially for younger users.

I grew up before everyone had cell phones in their pockets. So I’ve seen plenty of changes to phone call etiquette over my lifetime. Recent articles from The Washington Post and from The Guardian point out the latest changes to the rules of the road for those devices we love to hate. Here are a few quick highlights:

Voicemail is dead

The Post’s article points out a few new “rules” that seem to be gaining in popularity.

The first involves voicemail. Specifically, it’s about not using it. The new guidance, at least for younger users, is that voicemail is too old-fashioned to fool with. If you someone doesn’t answer, you don’t wait for the recording to leave a message.

In a way, I understand that: with smartphones, you can see who called, so in one respect, voicemails aren’t that critical. At the same time, if someone calls me and I miss their call, if they don’t leave a voicemail, I’ll assume their call wasn’t important. Unless I need to speak with them right away, I won’t call them back.

Don’t call, just text?

Another new “rule” is to shoot someone a text message before a phone call. Rather than calling, which apparently represents taking a “huge” risk that they — Gasp! — might not answer, you should text them. Send a message: “Call me.”

As someone who grew up before voicemail, or specifically answering machines, weren’t that common, I see that younger people seem to hate picking up the phone to actually make a call. Even in the newsroom, I’ll hear a reporter say, “I’ll reach out” to someone about some tip. Invariably, they’ll send an email or a text.

“Did you call?” I ask.

“I sent a text,” they answer.

I pick up the phone. About half the time, the person will actually answer the phone, especially if it’s someone who works in an office or if I call the same cell phone the reporter just texted. When you have them on the phone, you can ask the question and get the answer. You don’t have to wait on them reading a text or email. You don’t have to wonder whether they’ve read it and are just putting off answering it or if they aren’t even in front of a screen to have seen it yet.

Don’t use the speakerphone in public

Just last night in the grocery store, I encountered two women walking down aisle with smartphones in their hand. They had their calls on speaker, meaning I was hearing what the other person said.

I kept thinking, “Why do I need to listen to this woman’s call?”

Actually, the first thing I thought was, “Why is this woman so ridiculously addicted to a stupid phone that she can’t run to the store without having to be on it?”

But the question of why she thinks her call is not only so important to her but so important in general that she needs to broadcast it came in a very close second.

Yes, I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to people and cell phones. But seriously, if there’s a new “rule” I absolutely agree with, this might be the one.

Are you a ‘phubber’?

If you’ve ever ignored the human company right in front of you to take a non-important call or deal with some other distraction from your device, you may be “phone snubbing” — or phubbing — them. Don’t do that, most etiquette experts resoundingly agree.

The Guardian article even points out that using your phone during sex is also bad form. Mercifully, they didn’t try to come up with a clever term for that. I could only imagine.

Folks, when someone has to tell you to leave your phone in another room so as not to even momentarily interrupt a romantic interlude, well, this phone obsession has clearly gotten out of hand.

Some even ‘phub’ our pets

Since I’m blessed to own a Collie, I don’t have an excuse of ignoring my dog to play on my phone…at least not for long. Collies have a strong sense of duty, as do most herding/working dog types. When it’s time to go out, he’ll communicate that to me effectively with those eyes. If the eyes don’t work — and they work quite well — he’ll resort to physical contact that becomes impossible to ignore.

There are times I’ll be on a device when he’s sitting or lying right next to me. But he’s more important to me than that device. When he needs attention, he gets it. He may be more likely to get my attention than most humans I know, in fact.

Phoning from the toilet

Everyone has done this. You probably won’t be able to convince me — unless you’re over the age of about 70 — that you’ve never, ever taken your smartphone into the restroom, even if only to read an email or text someone.

But trust me: no one wants to know that you’re talking, emailing or texting them from the throne room. That’s far too much information. Just as bad is to walk into a restroom and hear a one-sided conversation emanating from a stall somewhere in the room.

That’s someone I don’t ever want to call. It’ll make me wonder what else they might be doing when they’re talking to me.


I don’t know if any of these resonate with you as among the worst offenses one can commit with their smartphone. Your top pet peeve may make any of these pale in comparison.

But as common as smartphones have become, and as vital as some now think they are, the rules of etiquette will probably be written and rewritten many times to come. It’ll be interesting to see in 20 years — maybe even in just 10 — how much more we’ll be willing to tolerate in the future compared to the red flags we see right now.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

1 Comment

  • Oh Boy! Oh Boy!

    I wrote a similar article and what a fire storm it created.

    First… I leave voicemail. Second I don’t text.*
    A few years back I went to grad school and a seventy year old meets twenty year olds! Talk about contrast.
    We were trying to plan a study group of five of us… the texts were flying back and forth. There must have been twenty – twenty-five text. This senior had enough I made a conference call! Within two minutes we had the location and time of where we would meet.
    My philosophy have respect for the other person, if they don’t like voicemail then text them if they don’t like texting, call them.
    So as Aretha Franklin sings have a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

    *So leaving voicemail and not texting is what I prefer, but if I’m trying to contact someone who rather text that is what it do and I hope they would voicemail me. Otherwise that text message is going to sit there for a very long time.

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