Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Retro Voices on the Etiquette of Call Waiting and Voicemail

"No. We're not busy.  We've just been sitting here screening our calls on the answering machine.  Hysterically funny!  What are you up to, dear?"

'Call Waiting' and Other Conundrums of Telephone Etiquette
The telephone was an ornery object even when it was simple and ugly. Now that its shape has been streamlined, its colors lightened and brightened, and its works programmed to be as complicated as a jet aircraft, its arrogance knows no bounds. It is rude, intrusive and demanding. It beeps in the middle of a conversation and expects understanding and forgiveness. 
Now that telephones are not only everywhere - showers, airplanes, boats and gardens - but have become increasingly complicated, telephone manners are, quite naturally, becoming equally complicated. Assume that one makes a call and hears splashing water at the other end. Should one pretend that it's perfectly normal to talk to a naked person in a shower, or make a comment about it? Is it time for jokes, embarrassment or savoir-faire? 
''It's unchic to make a big deal out of it; you have to adopt an 'oh yes, so what' attitude,'' one caller said. ''There's no question that you subsconsciously visualize what that person looks like in the buff, but you've got to present yourself as calm, unruffled and unsurprised.'' 
The innovation most resented by most people is ''call waiting,'' a service or disservice formerly available only on telephones with several lines, and now possible on single-line instruments. This development punctuates a call with a beep, or beeps, if someone else is tying to get through while a conversation is going on. When this happens, the person already on the line is almost always asked to hold while the second call is answered.               
"Amazing!  This thing actually works! Oh wait... There's another call coming in.  Hang on. Let me see who that is..." Two of the country's leading etiquette experts were appalled at the concept of call waiting in the 1980s.  Most still are.
''It's last come, first served, an incredibly rude idea,'' said Judith Martin, who is also known as ''Miss Manners.'' ''It's an invention of the devil,'' said the late-Letitia Baldrige, the author of the revised ''Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette'' and ''Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to Executive Manners.'' 
''Let them call again,'' she said. ''For years people have re-dialed when the line was busy. They waited their turn. When I'm put on hold, I always hope that as my revenge, their other call will be someone wanting to sell them something.'' 
Mrs. Martin compared call-waiting to ''standing at a cocktail party and not paying attention to the person you're with, waiting for a more important person.'' 
A number of people not in the etiquette business also dislike call-waiting. ''I had it but I gave it up because I think it's terribly rude,'' said a singer-pianist. ''You either had to take that second call or keep on being interrupted by those beeps.'' One woman said she was of two minds about call-waiting, although she herself refused to have it. But, she said, most of the young people she works with, who are on the junior benefit committees for the Youth Counseling League, have the service. 
''I don't know which is more offensive, having your call broken into by another, or to keep calling and get a busy signal,'' she said. ''The only way to handle call-waiting with any kind of manners,'' she added, ''is to excuse yourself for a moment, answer the second call, take the number and return immediately to the original call.''
What's the etiquette of taking a telephone call in a car? 
The publisher of one magazine, said her own car had a speaker-phone but that she never used it if there were other people traveling with her. ''It's just plain manners,'' she said. However, she said, she always hires cars with telephones, and she frequently makes calls from airplanes, she said. She not only didn't agree with people who considered it gauche to announce that they were calling from a car or a plane, but she often found it useful. 
''I might tell them, 'It's costing me 50 cents a second from the car, and let's get down to business,' '' she said. ''And if I call from a plane, I always tell them where I am. People love it, they get a real high, and they always take the call.'' 
As for Mrs. Martin, her feelings about the telephone and its innovations go beyond call-waiting. Of one thing she's certain: She's not going to live at its beck and call. She has no ''ringing'' telephone in her home, she said. She said she manages very well with a 24-hour ''live'' answering service, and she returns calls at her convenience. ''The telephone demands to be attended to when it feels like it, regardless of what anyone is doing - and my husband and I have simply eliminated that,'' she said. ''We do not need to be reached day and night.'' 
''The fact is if more business was conducted by mail, the world would go around a lot faster,'' she said. ''The illusion that the telephone speeds up communication is ridiculous. You can spend days with messages back and forth.'' 
Mrs. Martin was considering updating the calling card routine once practiced by the tonier types of every city. Her idea was to institute ''telephone hours'' at home, where one could be ''in'' for calls between certain hours and ''not receive'' the rest of the time. 
She did, however, consider the answering machine a convenience, although it had one drawback. ''People get very angry because there is a deep-down belief that you should be available 24 hours a day,'' she said. ''The trouble with answering machines is that you're almost forced to return calls,'' said another woman. ''The excuse that your machine is, or was, on the blink can only be used once or twice.'' 
She also pointed out the trap of using the machine to screen calls - picking up only if it's someone you want to talk to. 
''Once they start doing that, their friends never believe that they're really out,'' she said. ''They are convinced that the person is really there but not picking up. The whole thing gets unbelievably convoluted.''

This originally was published in the NY Times, by Enid Nemy


Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia