Saturday, November 5, 2011

Reggie's Rules for Calling Someone on the Telephone

The other evening I attended a large cocktail party where I ran into a former colleague, JL.  I like JL and enjoy speaking with him whenever I have the pleasure of seeing him, which is at least several times a year.

A reasonable reaction upon answering the telephone
and being confronted by a rude caller

We fell into a conversation that eventually turned to the topic of the sorry state of manners in today's world, and our shared belief that telephone manners, in particular, had reached a new low.  As an example, JL recounted a telephone conversation he had at home one recent evening:

Telephone:  Ring-ring-ring

JL:  Hello?

Caller:  Is Bobby there?

JL:  May I ask who's calling, please?

Caller:  Peter

JL:  Peter who?

Caller:  Peter Porterhouse

JL:  Oh, hello Peter, this is Bobby's father.  How are you?

Caller:  Okay

JL:  I'm sorry, but Bobby isn't available right now.  May I take a message for him?

Caller:  No, I'll try him later.

JL:  Okay, thanks Peter.  Nice speaking with you.

Caller:  Yeah

JL:  Goodbye Peter


JL was particularly irritated by this exchange because he knew Peter Porterhouse, one of his son's friends and a regular visitor at JL's house.  We both agreed that Peter was a boor, but since he was still relatively young—a teenager—we agreed that it wasn't necessarily his fault but rather that of his parents, who raised him to be an ill-mannered oaf, without (for starters) instilling in him basic good telephone manners.

I then related a telephone conversation I had one recent weekend afternoon, where the caller was even ruder:

Telephone:  Ring-ring-ring

RD:  Hello?

Caller:  Who is this?

RD:  Excuse me?

Caller:  Who is this?

RD:  What do you mean, "Who is this?" Who's calling, please?

Caller:  [pause] . . . uh . . . this is Sandra

RD:  Sandra who?  Who are you calling?

Caller:  Where's Mike?

RD:  I believe you have the wrong number.


Even though this was obviously a wrong number, I found this call particularly annoying because the caller who initiated the call did so by asking me who I was, rather than identifying herself to me first, and then hung up on me when I informed her that she had dialed the wrong number, without any acknowledgment or apology.

Dear Reader, I share these two conversations with you as prime examples of callers who clearly did not appreciate, or had not been properly trained in, the rudimentary rules required when initiating a telephone call.

In my view, these rules are:

Rule Number 1:  When making a telephone call you must always begin the call by identifying yourself to the person who answers the phone.  Unless you recognize his/her voice and are on first-name basis with him/her and speak with him/her regularly, and are confident that he/she will immediately recognize who it is that is calling him/her, then you must identify yourself by stating your full name, including both your first and last names, such as "Hello, this is Reggie Darling.  I'm calling to speak with Emily Toplofty.  Is she there, please?"

Rule Number 2:  Never initiate a telephone conversation by asking, "Who is this?"  You may only seek to learn the identity of the person who has answered the telephone after you have identified yourself first.  The proper way to do so is to ask, "With whom am I speaking, please?"

Rule Number 3:  If you have dialed the wrong number, it is incumbent upon you to say, "Excuse me, I believe I've dialed the wrong number." You may thus politely terminate the phone call.

Rule Number 4:  When the person who has answered the telephone identifies herself to you as someone other than the person you are seeking to speak with, you must respond with a polite acknowledgement, such as "Oh, hello Mrs. Toplofty, I hope you are well."

Rule Number 5:  Always end a telephone conversation with some form of closing salutation, such as "Goodbye," or "Talk to you soon," or "Thank you."  Never simply hang up the telephone without closing out the conversation first.

In summary, I believe it is the responsibility of the person initiating a phone call to inform the person answering the telephone of their identity and the purpose for the call.  The caller should also be prepared to engage in a brief exchange of pleasantries, as a matter of courtesy, with the person on the other end of the line.  Finally, the caller should always conclude the call with some form of acknowledgement that the call has been completed by both the caller and the person with whom they have spoken.

These are the rules I follow when I call someone on the telephone, and I believe every other civilized person should too.  I'm heartened to know that I am not alone in believing this, given my former colleague JL's emphatic agreement.

Tell me, what do you think?

Photograph courtesy of LIFE Images


  1. I wholeheartedly agree, but please do not blame the parents of that boy. As the mother of a teenage boy with deplorable manners, I must assert that he was taught them and still is "required" to use them. He is under the impression that manners "don't matter" and are a kind of oppression by adults who just don't understand anything cool. He is grounded for a multitude of reasons at the moment. I hope he figures it out when the real world shuns his dreadful habits.

  2. Excellent, Mr. Darling, with one exception: never inquire if the person is "there" as they may be indisposed at the time or simply not wish to speak with you at the moment. It would be best to announce yourself and request the one that you wish to speak with. Thank you.

  3. Sorry. I forgot to add that you may simply omit the last sentence in your quoted example from rule number 1. Thanks again.

  4. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Have you noticed how many times Rule Number 5 is broken during a telephone conversation in most films nowadays? How much over budget would the director be if he were to ask the actor involved in the telephone scene to utter "goodbye" prior to hanging up the receiver? That has been a pet peeve of mine for years. Good manners should always be in style.

  5. Hello Reggie
    You have articulated my thoughts so beautifully on telephone etiquette. When did it become cool and acceptable to speak rudely and poorly? On another note, I just returned from shopping at Target, where a staff member make a PA announcement. I'm presuming they spoke in English but I have no idea was was transmitted.Who is hiring and training?
    You raise a good question, who should teach telephone manners to the younger generation?
    Helen Tilston

  6. Dear Writer: May I say that you couldn't have said it better! Thank you for addressing one of my biggest pet peeves. I hope all your readers forward this blog until it becomes viral. We dearly need better telephone etiquette. Thank you!

  7. Could NOT agree more. And I realize October came and went without a Reggie sighting chez Papa Privilege. Perhaps next time you are out this way?

  8. Hello Reggie:
    Well, we should certainly have been with you and JL in the discussion of the nosedive being taken with regard to manners in all avenues of everyday life. And, yes, telephone calls are no exception.

    In our view, we feel that a large part of the problem is the volume of telephone conversations being undertaken in today's world. Do people really need this degree of connection? What are they talking about? At home, on trains, on buses, in the street,at the office,in the desert, on name it, and someone will be there with a telephonic device of some description shouting into it for everyone unfortunate enough to be within a few yards to hear. With so many millions of 'chats' taking place, it is our view that there is no wonder that people have lost the art of civilised conversation!

  9. The telephone as a communicatation instrument is a good example of "just because you can, doesn't mean you have to, or that it is wanted." Alexander Graham Bell was strident and specific that the telephone was for the convenience of the receiver, not the caller. Email has taken the telephone's intrusiveness out of the equation, but the flip side of this is that most people don't know how to use the 'phone. One last thing since I'm thinking of it, and wouldn't bore you with a call, but a supporting point about all this is that people have no knowledge of the difference between "taking word" and "taking a message." I train my staff not to take word ("Tell him Napoleon called.") but to take a message ("Napoleon called and said Waterloo wasn't going well."). When you have a message, you have information on which to base returning the call or not. I know....what a world. Cheers !

  10. In this, as in so many other things, you are completely correct Reggie. May you be spared crank(y) calls for all eternity.

  11. I agree with all your suggestions; however, might I add one? After ascertaining that the person with which you wish to speak is on the line, immediately ask if they are free to talk at the moment or if another time would be better, especially if you are planning to pursue a lengthy conversation. Nothing is worse than being in the middle of a task and being trapped on the phone with someone who drones on and on with no plan of stopping anytime soon.

  12. Do you remember that we were taught to answer the home telephone with "Darling residence, Camilla (or Reggie) speaking."
    Another telephone peeve of mine is those who leave recorded messages but speak so quickly it is impossible to understand who they are and what telephone number they are leaving. It was particularly annoying when I had a business. Since then, I make it a point to repeat my name and telephone number a second time at the very end of my message.
    xox Camilla

  13. Reggie,
    I agree with Hilton. I was ripped a new one by my mother when she heard me ask "Is John there, please?". She told me it was none of my business whether or not he was there... I was only to inquire whether or not I would be able to speak with him. From then on, I asked "May I please speak with John?".

    The reason for this is the loss of the centralized household phone. When everyone has their own cellphone with ID's for each caller, callers and answerers alike rarely need to identify themselves, and are already likely on very familiar terms. Once upon a time, you answered the phone on behalf of your household, and made calls to other households from yours.

    P.S. When someone calls me and starts with "Who's this?" I always respond with "I don't know. how many guesses do I get?"

  14. Good post, Reggie. When my phone rings and the caller says, "Who's this ?", my answer is invariably, "Why don't you tell me first" (no question mark in my voice). That usually gets rid of them unless they really do know me in which case they will laugh and tell me.
    Best -
    - Mike

  15. Reggie, when a caller says "Who is this?", I cut to the end, 99% of the time, and just tell them they have the wrong number and say "good-bye".

    I hope the commentor who felt a teen-ager's rudeness and/or lack of social skills is not the parent's fault will reconsider that statement. The parent's job can be a difficult one, especially these days, but that is no excuse to give up.

  16. Dear Reggie,
    This is such a wonderful post. Such basic yet important manners to know.
    I am the mother of young children so the phone has not come into play in their social live as of yet. Though I am having trouble accepting some of our young neighbours manners. I have to wonder what they are being taught at home. Twice this past week I have had two young girls just walk in our front door without so much as a knock.
    My other pet hate, is the failure to wash their hands after using the bathroom. I keep drumming this into them so we are inproving on this front.
    I would love your opinion on whether you would think it appropriate to correct the manners of other peoples children when they are visiting our home.
    Thank you for sharing,

  17. Thank you, thank you, and thank you! I can't stand rude telephone manners. Please--can you somehow blast your post to the entire country?

  18. I am always reminding people that I am not a mind reader ! (and especially on a cell phone)
    My pet peeve is timing: call between 9am and
    9pm ,unless it is an emergency. Thanks.

  19. I so agree! And in business settings too, people have forgotten how important it is to follow these simple courtesies. I once had a boss who insisted we "give good phone" and he was right. Even in these days of caller ID, no one should answer their business line with just a "hello." I always answer my office phone with "hello, this is [first name]". A pet peeve is people who launch right into a request without identifying themselves first. And can we talk about the rambling, 5-minute voicemail with the caller's return phone number left only once, hurriedly, at the end of it?

  20. Dearest Reggie,
    When I was in Madrid I was perplexed and amused at how the telephone is answered there.
    They answer saying "Digame", which roughly means "tell me".
    Spain is such a well mannered place, that I was surprised by this.
    I answer the phone, (even with caller ID) saying 'Hello" and saying my name ("This is Valorie").
    Thanks for this post. I am going to post it on Facebook and Twitter. I believe people really don't know how to answer the phone these days!
    xo xo

  21. Hello Reggie, Your post points out an interesting opportunity. Since the average level of telephone (not to mention other) politeness is so low, people can distinguish themselves and seem like models of decorum simply by having the decent manners that you outline in your rules.

    It especially saddens me that Rule #4 is going away--that one reveals a deeper level of inconsideration. I think, however, that we can cut some slack for the phrase "Is XXXX there?" which is like "How are you?"--the real answer is not required. Therefore, I would have no problem with the following conversation: A: "Is Bob there?" B: "May I take a message?"
    --Road to Parnassus

  22. Dear Reggie,
    This is a wonderful and helpful post! May I add another telephone peeve? The phone at my home rings, I answer and the other party says, "John Doe, please" referring to my husband. I respond that the caller has called Mr. Doe's home phone, not his office and this is Mr. Doe's wife, not his secretary, so I will need more information from the caller if he wishes to speak with anyone at this number.
    Another point worth mentioning is that we did not teach our children to answer the phone and identify themselves, as this is not safe in this day and age. A caller would then have the child's name, and can make the child believe the caller is someone familiar to our family, and con them into giving away more information than they should. Unfortunately we have to sometimes sacrifice good manners for safety.

  23. One would think this goes without saying, but if someone calls and asks to speak to someone other than who answered the call, the correct action is to set the phone down gently, and then go let the requested party know he or she has a call. It is not acceptable to hold the phone in one hand and bellow the desired party's name at the top of one's voice.

  24. Lord, have mercy! You have struck a NERVE in this household! Poor telephone manners are a source of great aggravation to me. I was raised by a father who believed there was an art to answering the telephone as well as making calls to people. And we were NEVER allowed to make or receive calls prior to 9 AM or after 9 PM on ANY DAY. I agree that this post desperately needs to go VIRAL!!! Thank you, Reggie!

  25. My absolute #1 phone hate is ,when calling a business and after asking for the party I am calling, is the curt reply "Who's calling?" instead of "May I say who's calling?"- AAHHAARRGGHH

  26. Hurrah. An excellent and, obviously, much needed post. My two pet peeves are cold-callers who address you by your christian name from some call centre in Mumbai and the word 'phone. It's a telephone.

  27. I wholeheartedly agree too. I also don't care for it when I offer to take a message and the response is "I'll call back later" with no thank you at all.

  28. Agreed. I once knew a broker who, on receiving a call in the office or at home, would simply pick up the 'phone and say: "Go!"

  29. Agree. Butcept the issue of having to greet Mrs. Toplofty once she identifies herself. Mrs. Toplofty was and continues to be a real piece of work--undeserving of pleasantries. I've begged her-for years, to ditch the wig and do something about her breath.

  30. I agree with all you said. But don't be too hard on teenagers. even the best trained ones lose their manners for a few years, but always get them back again once they get closer to 20.

  31. Reggie,
    Oh how I agree with all your rules! As the mother of 2 teens I am constanly on their back when I hear them talking in what I call Neanderthal. The conversation sounds like a serious of grunts with no actuall words being uttered! My son has been guilty of this while talking to his friends, which in and of itself is rare since they usually text.

    I try to pick my battles with the teens as my children do exercise manners with my friends, but I still make my corrections/suggestions whenever the opportunity presents itself!

    However, when adults do not have telephone manners, it bothers drives me insane. I have a friend who makes it harder and harder to talk to on the phone. Are you ready for this? She crunches whatever snack she has grabbed in my ear and/or has side conversations with family members who pass by while we are on the phone!!!

    I have suggested so many times to let me call you back when it's more convenient or when we can find a less busy time to talk. Her response? No, no this is fine.

    Please help. Call me!

  32. Kerry and Acanthus: Thank you for your comments. I sympathize with the plight of parents of teenagers. I know that I was beastly at times when I was a teenager, despite my parents' best efforts to instill in me civil behavior. All I can say is, perservere!

    Hilton: Thank you, that is an interesting and nuanced perspective you bring with your comment. I hadn't thought of it that way. You are, indeed, correct.

    LizaE: Unfortunately the media, as you point out, is a prime contributor to why people's manners are so degraded. It would help if good examples to follow were portrayed, at least at times, rather than what you describe.

  33. It would be nice if more people fully understood the points you made. I read your post with particular curiosity thinking you might bring up the subject of phone calls that are either commercial or charitable solicitations. I'd like to hear your remarks about those situations.

  34. Helen Tilston: To answer your question, I believe it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children manners. In the absence of parents, or when the parents are incapable of doing so, I would think that enrollment of children in etiquette classes should be mandatory. Actually, I believe etiquette classes should be mandatory for ALL children.

    Meredith Moore: Thank you, I believe that manners, in general, need to go viral...

    LPC: Unfortunately there was no West Coast trip for Reggie this year. I am hoping next year will prove otherwise.

  35. My reaction was that the first rude person in the above conversation was JL.

    In my part of the world rule No 1 is, or at least used to be: Never, ever answer the phone with just "Hello!". At least state your name. To just say "Hello!" is considered to be very rude indeed.

    Otherwise I agree completely.

  36. I agree wholeheartedly. May I please suggest a good practice when leaving a voicemail message? Often when leaving such a message, folks ramble on at a conversational speed, and it's the thinking about what they're going to say that slows them to a pace that's easy to follow. And then, when leaving their phone number, they race through it because they don't have to think about it. We don't all have caller ID, friends! The voicemail message of a colleague of mine ends with, "Please leave your name and number--and please speak slowly so I can write down the information--and a brief message."

  37. I have a couple of new pet peeves with telephone usage these days.

    If I receive a call and don't recognize the name or number, I usually don't answer it for a variety of reasons. If it is a legitimate call, I can check the message later. If no message is left, the call is promptly forgotten.

    However, I occasionally mis-dial a number; when I get an answering machine and realize my mistake, I apologize and hang up. 99% of the time, the person will call back and demand to know who I am. Why is it necessary to know who called you if the person has acknowledged and apologized for making a mistake?

    Yesterday my phone rang, I didn't answer it and the message was "this is Jim Smith". The phone range again; same message. 5 minutes later, same thing. On the fourth call, I stopped what I was doing, answered the phone and was abruptly told "this is Jim Smith". I politely replied he must have the wrong number; this was XXX-XXX-XXXX.

    At this point, Jim Smith became agitated and said "my beeper told me to call this number". Since I wasn't sure what that meant, I hesitated and he repeated himself. I explained I didn't understand the problem because I hadn't used the phone all morning, etc. There was a very long pause and he slammed the phone down. It was quite rude and unnecessary....


  38. Is there anything worse than people who call you and then ask who YOU are?? The nerve!!
    Although sometimes I do scare myself at how much I'm turning into my mother. My parents used to hang up on my friends if their telephone manners were not up to snuff. As my last name almost rhymed with "Yes, Please" it actually became a nick name for me for a while. I was mortified.

  39. Thanks for putting all those facts together. Proper phone manners should really be observed at all times.


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