Are Phone Calls Rude?

April 13th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

A <i>New York Times</i> writer heralds the death of the telephone call.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I don’t answer my phone.

There, I’ve admitted it. There are about three people with whom I will submit to spontaneous phone conversations, and one of them is my mother.  If I must talk on the phone, I prefer to schedule the call – by email.

I’ve always assumed this was some terrible fault on my part, and in no way reflected the etiquette of my respective callers (who, if they’ve read this, have now likely dwindled to one; again, my mother). I don’t consider it rude when people call me. I consider myself rude – and frankly, rather shy – for not picking up the phone when they call. But to avoid the perception of rudeness, I let the phone ring fully, never pressing the “ignore” button because then people would know I’m actively dismissing their calls; and that really is rude, unless you can later convincingly explain it away (“I was in an important meeting”; “changing a diaper”; “in heavy traffic,” etc.).

However, it now seems that I’m not alone in preferring planned, written communication. In fact, there’s a school of thought that forgives my phone avoidance and condemns the actual people nice enough to call me. An article by Pamela Paul in The New York Times asserts that, “Phone calls are rude. Intrusive. Awkward.” Even Judith Martin, (aka Miss Manners) agrees: “Thank you for noticing something that millions of people have failed to notice since the invention of the telephone until just now,” she says. “I’ve been hammering away at this for decades. The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people.”

Paul also points out that adults are following the lead of teenagers and increasingly giving up phone communication in favor of texts and emails. And the trend is supported by research from Nielsen Media indicating that even on cell phones, voice spending is on the decline, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

And, as I’ve increasingly noticed in my work with magazine clients, Paul points out that “Phone call appointments have become common in the workplace. Without them, there’s no guarantee your call will be returned.” 

For the most part, she says assiduous commenting on a friend's Facebook updates and periodically e-mailing promises to "catch up by phone soon" substitute for actual conversation. "We do everything by text and e-mail," said Laurie David, a Hollywood producer and author. "It would be strange at this point to try figuring all that out by phone."

Responses to the article, which were cut off at over 480, represented an even mix of nostalgia for warmth of human contact, and total agreement that the unplanned phone call was an intrusion. In which camp do you fall?