Building Beginnings

Who’s calling?

In the closing years of the 19th century a new phrase entered the English language – telephone etiquette. As early adopters of the telephone began installing apparatus in their homes and offices, a code of behaviour was needed to avoid unintended telephonic faux pas with this new form of communication. Hitherto, letters and telegrams had provided the means for written correspondence and urgent messages, and the only means of speaking to another person was to be within shouting distance. But here was a medium enabling verbal communication between people miles away – out of sight but not out of mind. It required guidance.

Here’s some published as Etiquette for Americans in November 1898:

It is apparently a rudeness to ask pressing questions over the phone. For example, if Miss White rings up Mr Brown and asks him to take her to the theatre, and he says he has an engagement, she must not press him about that engagement for ‘it is unladylike to pin a man down and invariably defeats its objects’.

The American Telephone Press Service offered this advice in 1926:

As a general rule, the one who calls up is the one who should terminate the talk, as [they] are in the position of one who makes a personal visit, and in that case the host or hostess would obviously not be the one to bring the conversation to an end. As regards telephone conversations, however, this rule has exceptions. When a woman is conversing with a man over the telephone, it makes no difference who did the calling up, it is the woman who should terminate the talk. That is her privilege.’

One’s staff also needed careful instruction when using the instrument:

A woman will ask her maid to get the number of a friend’s house for her and ask the friend to come to the telephone, and then keep her friend waiting while she is called by the maid to come to the telephone herself. This method of wasting other people’s time is not confined to women alone. Men are equal offenders and often greater ones, for the man at the other end is apt to be more immediately busy than a woman under such circumstances.’

The Leeds Mercury made the point in December 1905 that:

Office boys, servants, etc should have it impressed upon them to be respectful over the telephone, to speak courteously, and say ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam.’

Perhaps it’s time to re-introduce telephone etiquette.

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