What is the biggest lie of the 21st century? The check is in the mail? No. I’ll respect you in the morning? Wrong again.
The biggest lie of the 21st century is “Leave a message, and I’ll call you right back.” No one ever calls back. This poor behavior coincided with the advent of the personal answering machine somewhere around 1980. You would think that having an answering machine would encourage the person who missed a call to return it. Wrong. Often when a person gets an answering machine, they start using it to screen their calls. [People behave similarly with the Caller ID on their telephones.] Suddenly, the average person throws etiquette out the window and stops answering calls, much less returning them. Instead, the ability to screen calls gives them the option to decide when to return a call or even to not return it. This is wrong.
Whenever the telephone rings, if you can conveniently get to it, do your best to answer. Similarly, when you get home, check to see if there are messages. If there are, respond as promptly as you can. Of course, if the call comes from a telemarketer or a solicitor, you do have – and may choose to use – the option of not returning that call. But for anyone else, when you say “I’ll call you right back,” mean it.
A common pet peeve is to call someone and not get a return call (or perhaps get the return days later). Some especially egregious parties even feign ignorance (e.g., “Oh, I’m sorry. I never got your message.”). Bull feathers! Businesses are particularly guilty of this. For someone who wants to take your money, wouldn’t you expect that they would make a practice of promptly returning a call? How often have you had to return your own call – repeatedly? Isn’t everyone filled with outrage over this? Therefore, if you have a choice, when you make a call that no one returns in a reasonable time, shop elsewhere. As for no-returns by a “friend,” don’t be afraid to tell them that you do not appreciate calling them and not getting a timely response. To be tactful, you may refer to “another person.” For example, tell the guilty party, “I really hate calling ‘Sarah’ and her not getting back to me for a day or two.” Most of them – at least the intelligent ones – will get your message. They will agree that they, too, do not like screeners or no-callers, but they will know you were talking about them. At the very least, in the future, they will apologize profusely if they do not get back to you promptly.
Therefore, here are some suggestions for telephone etiquette in the 21st century.
First, if you do not want to return calls, disconnect your answering machine. When the phone rings repeatedly, the caller will assume you are not available and will call back later or will not try again. It’s that simple. This applies as well to caller ID. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you are so self-important that you cannot pick up the phone.
Second, if the telephone is where you can reach it easily and you are not otherwise inconvenienced, such as by dealing with a boil-over on the stove, answer the phone. If it is not a good time to talk, tell the caller you will call them back later. Or ask them to call back.
Third, if someone leaves a message while you are out, show some good graces (i.e., manners) and return their call.
These suggestions are aimed at creating a polite society. Typically, such as with television sitcoms, movies, or contemporary music, we have let our society become coarser. At least let’s not do that in our interpersonal relations.