Do Those Old-Fashioned Phone Manners Still Make Sense?

Cafe table with phone and two coffee cups
Phone manners have changed some in the 150 years since Alexander Bell first spoke the words “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!” into his leading-edge voice transmitter.

Early telephone etiquette centered around social politeness, and also on the practicality that phone service was limited and should not be squandered!

A few examples, taken from a list of early phone etiquette rules in a recent Mental Floss article:

  • Don’t say hello! Because that greeting was implied and exchanging niceties was seen as tying up the phone lines unnecessarily. Instead, recipients were encouraged to state their phone number immediately as soon as they picked up the receiver—again, so that the caller knew whether he’d reached the right number and no time was wasted.
  • Never invite someone to a party over the phone. The details of the invitation, it seems, were thought to disappear into the ether! It was considered more polite to send a paper invite in the mail, so that your guests had a tangible record of event details.
  • Gentlemen, keep your mustaches out of the mouthpiece! One early phone service counseled male customers to keep facial hair away from the phone to improve call quality. I’m glad today’s smartphones no longer wrap around our chins. Mustaches and beards have made a huge comeback, and would no doubt contribute to fuzzy telephony.
Alexander Bell making a phone call

Alexander Bell at the opening of the phone line from New York to Chicago in 1892. Source: Library of Congress.

There are some phone guidelines though that still ring true today (pardon the horribly phone-y pun). And while we all have to bend these rules from time to time, they really do still hold true:

  • Never ask, “Who are you?” Occasionally, we answer the phone and have no idea who’s on the other end of the line, right? But we find ways to ask a little more politely, even if it means telling a white lie: “I’m sorry. This line is so bad! Who’s there?”
  • Don’t call before 9:00 AM or after 9:00 PM. Maybe I’m old school but I can’t bring myself to call someone outside of these hours. I text first thing in the morning and late at night, but there’s something about knowing you might wake a colleague and her family with a loud ring that makes calling early or late seem all the more rude.
  • Always be ready to talk when you call someone. Early phone users would often place a call and then going about their business while the call was being connected, leaving the recipient literally hanging and waiting. Today, it’s more about having respect for a friend or colleague’s time. When you call someone, have have a mental list of all the points you want to discuss so that you can do it efficiently. Hardly a matter of formal phone etiquette—it’s just good manners!

Read the rest of the 15 Early Telephone Etiquette Rules We Should Bring Back on Mental Floss and let us know which of these amuse or puzzle you.