Smith residence, Sally speaking!
April 26, 2010 9:39 PM   Subscribe

How do children learn phone etiquette in a world with no landlines?

I was wondering about this the other day, as fewer of my friends have landlines and more have cell phones only, where cell numbers are tethered to particular PERSON, not a family unit. How do you teach children phone etiquette, since, "Smith residence, Sally speaking" is no longer applicable? When do you let them use/answer your phone? When do they get their own? How do they set up playdates with friends when they're 5? when they're 10? when they're 12? What IS the etiquette, particularly in the family where both adults have cells and there's no landline? Is it always mom's phone that gets the call? (Assuming a heteronormative household; also interested to hear in two-mom or two-dad households, of course!) Does mom make the dates and junior just doesn't until he's old enough for his own phone?

I'm interested in both cell-only households and cell-landline hybrids.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Human Relations (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Just anecdotally, don't go to hard on the kid, or at least teach context. My mother used to make me hang up and call again if I didn't follow strict guidelines. Up until the end of college, I'd still say "Hello, this is Jeremiah. May I please speak to XXX?" even when calling a personal cellphone, even after my friend said "Hey Jeremiah, what's up?" I'm still uncomfortable using phones, feeling like the only Jeeves amongst a thousand Woosters.

I think you'll do best just to teach them general manners, p's and q's. "May I please speak to YYY" is fine, but if YYY answers the phone they should feel free to immediately start babbling as if their friend was present. If they learn to be cognizant of other people's feelings and perceptions of them, they should be able to extrapolate.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 10:17 PM on April 26, 2010

All I can say is, good luck. The younger generation I know basically uses cell phones like walkie-talkies. Answering with an annoyed "What?!" is pretty common. It's also pretty common to have to maintain a mental list of who the contact person is for anyone who doesn't have their own cell phone. Landline? Are they home? Mom? Facebook? I'm not sure that etiquette even rises to the level of a major concern here given that mere logistics of reaching someone can be daunting.

I think this is one of those things that's just falling by the wayside. The paradigm is so different, the protocols we used to use have no application. When someone answers the phone, they no longer speak for the household and require a modulated and socialized approach.

I'd concentrate on other aspects such as talking on the phone in the presence of others, and the all-important what to do when your phone rings amid a face-to-face conversation. I get that the consensus default seems to be that the other person shuts up and the phone owner simply answers, but it would be nice to occasionally get an "I'm sorry, I need to get this."
posted by dhartung at 10:44 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please teach your child that it's technically rude and mostly just really, really odd to have them texting away at full speed while in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. Jaysis. /get off my lawn

In less cranky matters, I think just teaching basic manners will be fine. Be polite, respond to the situation, all will be well.
posted by kalimac at 11:27 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I mentor middle schoolers. This year, of my five 12/13 year old girls, 3 have their own phones, one has only a landline (her parents don't have cellphones either), and 1 uses one of her parents' phones. She can usually use one of theirs because they tend to work different shifts, but sometimes she is home alone without a phone (which her parents worry about but right now they can't afford to get her her own phone). I had this problem with the kids I mentored last year, but with the added bonus that their parents tended to use pre-paid phones and so when they ran out of charge they weren't reachable at all.

The interesting thing to me is that the ones who have their own phones don't actually like to talk on them--they use their phones to text their friends--I leave messages on their voicemail and they email me back. The one who has a landline definitely has the best phone manners, but she's also an exceedingly polite young woman overall.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:23 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could use MORE technology to help combat the problem. Get a Google Voice number that becomes the "home" number and rings through to everyone's cell phone!
posted by largecorp at 4:47 AM on April 27, 2010

Response by poster: I recognize that paradigms of communication are changing, but "phone etiquette" grows up to be part of "business etiquette" and in a business setting phones are still in high use, alongside videoconferencing that (often) still uses much of the etiquette of phone calls. I never really thought you taught kids how to properly answer the phone because you really care how an 8-year-old answers the phone, but because it's part of a larger set of life skills that will matter LATER.

So I'm both interested in how children begin learning those skills now that landlines are dying, and in related issues like cell etiquette or how children too young for their own phones (and too young for facebook and whatnot) make plans with friends -- or is that entirely within the parents' purview these days?

(I mean, you didn't really teach kids in the 80s to write letters because letter-writing was SUCH an important mode of communicating -- you were essentially teaching them Morse code with telegraphs 60 years dead, to use the above metaphor -- but because letter-writing is a way to teach skills that will be important later in business and general adult life (in e-mailing, even!). Not because you can only reach Aunt Maude by letter!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:38 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was just going to chime in that they will have to learn to call businesses and say more than "hey, it's me."

My friends that have elementary/middle school age kids and no land line either use their mom's cell phone or have their own.
posted by Pax at 5:49 AM on April 27, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - question is not a general referendum on what you don't like about phones
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:58 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question. I was a land-line hold out until about 4 years ago, when I switched exclusively to a cellphone. Even before that, enough people had mobiles that I could pretty much be assured of immediately reaching who I wanted, or getting an electronic phone tree. I still start calls I initiate to an unknown party with "Hello, this is _____, and I'm calling about/for ______."

One complicating factor: every cell has Caller ID, now, so it's easy to personalize a greeting for who you expect on the far end. I still answer unknown calls with some variant of "Good morning, this is ____, go ahead," and that's how I've always handled calls on phones without caller ID. This is what people are talking about with regard to office/desk phones, correct? I suppose the question is where does one learn that behavior...
posted by Alterscape at 6:01 AM on April 27, 2010

I recognize that paradigms of communication are changing, but "phone etiquette" grows up to be part of "business etiquette" and in a business setting phones are still in high use, alongside videoconferencing that (often) still uses much of the etiquette of phone calls. I never really thought you taught kids how to properly answer the phone because you really care how an 8-year-old answers the phone, but because it's part of a larger set of life skills that will matter LATER.

There are still a ton of people who don't know how to properly answer a business call even though they grew up in the age of landlines. The people growing up in the age of cellphones who you think are missing out on an important life skill will just have to do what these people do...practice.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:03 AM on April 27, 2010

We never used "Smith residence, Sally speaking" in our house anyway. It's the caller's job to identify themselves. Just a friendly "Hello?" is fine, and if it's followed by the caller thinking the answerer is someone else (say, because the child is answering a mother's cell phone), the child can gently interrupt with, "I'm sorry, this is her daughter/son, may I ask who's speaking?"

Now, for caller etiquette involving a cell, when someone answers, you say, "Hi, this is _____." If it's the personal cell phone of the person you're trying to reach, just assume they've answered and follow with "How are you?" If not, say, "May I speak with ____?"

Business-phone etiquette is different because (a) you want to identify yourself first, and (b) you're usually answering on behalf of an organization, as well as yourself. But really, these days, the most common way for many people to answer the phone at work is just, "Sally Smith." A receptionist might answer with the name of the company, or "Sally Smith's office," if that's who they're answering for.

You want your child to be polite, but the example you gave sounds a little stilted to me.
posted by palliser at 6:07 AM on April 27, 2010

I would say one thing I wish everyone did when they called is identify themselves. I know some people who tend to call from numbers I don't recognize and get offended when I don't somehow magically figure out whose voice said "hi" within 2 seconds. Large contact lists, cell phones, and caller ID have reduced the occurrence of this problem, but it still happens. And it's definitely expected in business situations. I'd say teach your kids to say "Hi, this is Bob" when they make a phone call, and you'll have covered 95% of my gripes with other people's phone habits.

Of course, if the other person answers the phone "Hi Bob, what's up?", then there's no need. Stubbornly following a protocol just for protocol's sake isn't reasonable.

Also, as a side point, I'd like to note that if your child ever takes a retail job they will likely be given a very specific greeting that they will have to use. "Thank you for calling StuffMart, the mart for all your stuff needs. Please be sure to check out our great deal on doodads this week! This is Bob, how can I help you?". We had to learn these elaborate greetings back when I worked at Babbages (now Gamestop), and our district manager would call the store every now and then just to check if we answered our phone correctly.
posted by Vorteks at 6:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm not actually teaching anybody anything, I'm just curious about the broader question.

(And I don't think I've ever answered the phone "Smith residence, Sally speaking" either, but I specifically chose it as an example of an outdated thing you don't hear anymore.)

Traditionally children began learning the norms of using the phone by answering the family phone and by calling another family phone and having to ask for the child they wished to speak to. These days, that's not so standard, and I'm curious how kids learn without that practice.

Some of these answers are very interesting and informative. (And yes, I know plenty of people have no manners and plenty of people think manners are stupid.) I spent probably half my day on the phone yesterday -- to media, to public officials, to friends, to businesses, to local bloggers, to co-volunteers, to friendly acquaintances -- and while, sure, you can train someone to answer a phone at work, or give the retail greeting (for like a year after quitting my first retail job I still automatically wanted to answer the phone that way!) but I think most people's daily use of phones is more complex than *just* calling friends ("Hey, what's up?") or answering a work phone, and the norms for those situations USED to be taught at home with a general family phone (and lacking caller ID). I started wondering about it in between my 8 zillion phone calls yesterday. I know there must be some MeFites with teenagers and nine-year-olds and six-year-olds who are navigating the phone-training waters!

If that helps clarify my question at all.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: As for playdates, we set up Skype for the 6yo in our lives on her own little computer, and plugged in whatever numbers we had for her friends and family. She surprised us by reaching out on her own to try to set up playdates with her friends' parents. In cases where we had cell phone numbers for multiple parents, we put in both, and she just tries one first and the other next if it didn't go through.
posted by Eshkol at 7:41 AM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: I think children learn this the same way they learn everything else--by watching what the adults in their lives do.

I am old enough to have grown up with landlines and been taught some very stilted phone etiquette for answering the phone, and yet I somehow managed to never actually use that stilted phone etiquette--because none of the adults in my life used it. (I'm talking the "Smith residence, Sally speaking" type stuff.) Instead, I answered the phone the way my parents did: "Hello?" It's the same way my grandparents answered the phone, and my aunts and uncles and my older siblings and cousins. (I also reply the way all the adults in my family did: "Hello, this is devinemiss K, may I speak to John?")

The way, then, to teach kids good phone etiquette in an era where everyone has their own phone, instead of, say, a familial phone, is to model that good etiquette when using your own cellphone. This folds over into phone manners in the business world. When I was a kid, my parents would occassionally take to me their offices and I'd hear how they made and answered calls. Nowadays that's even easier because so many people are accessible out of the office via cellphone. I learned my office phone etiquette by listening to my dad. And I answer my work phone (and mobile calls from numbers I don't recognize) the way he does: "This is devinmissk."

I get that kids will model what their friends do and sometimes that leads to bad habits. But parents will deal with that the way they deal with all of the bad habits kids pick up from their friends--by calling them out on it and asking the child to modify the behavior. (For instance, my younger sister developed the very bad and annoying habit of calling all of her teachers "Miss" -- no last name, etc. My parents found this unacceptable and called her out on it every time she did it. If she was talking about her day and said, "Oh, and then Miss told Bobby that he had to go to the principal's office" my mom would say, "Miss who?" until my sister got in the habit of referring to her teacher as "Miss Jones." Lord knows if she actually retained that while at school--probably not--but she learned the proper and polite way to refer to her teacher, which is really the key.)
posted by devinemissk at 8:39 AM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: "Good afternoon, this is Jason!" works in all contexts
posted by jasondigitized at 8:56 AM on April 27, 2010

Best answer: It makes sense to me that kids would use a parent's cell phone to call their friend's parent. Phone etiquette would be especially important in that instance, because the child would have to identify herself and ask to speak to her friend - "Hi Ms. Smith/Jane, this is Susie, may I speak to Jenny?"

Kids also eventually get practice answering other peoples' phones - I know I answer my parents' and friends' phones here and there, especially while they're driving. Again, phone etiquette is important - I can't just say hi, I have to say, "Jane's phone, insectosaurus speaking."
posted by insectosaurus at 8:59 AM on April 27, 2010

Yeah, I thought the whole "FAMILY NAME residence, CHILD speaking" went out of use in the 80s with the rise in privacy and predatory attacks started happening.

However, I think this is a more wide-ranging issue. In school children are not taught how to be good citizens in general. They are not taught how to take care of themselves. This is not new. This has always been a family responsibility. What seems to be really changing is the fabric of the family and how busy and/or structured it is.

When I was a kid in the 70s I had an alarming amount of freedom by today's standards. I lived in Chicago proper and ran all over the neighborhood. There were no "play dates". I went outside and I played. With other kids if they were out or by myself if they weren't.

I learned how to answer the phone by mimicking my mother. I assume if I ever have small beings living in my house they'll learn the same way I did. It's not like everyone who calls my mobile phone is known to me. I still answer with a "hello" now and then, though more often it's "this is FlamingBore".
posted by FlamingBore at 9:20 AM on April 27, 2010

Also pre-dating mobile phones here - I made playdates in the playground/at school, you went home, asked your parents if they approved and off you went. If the parents wanted to check with the other parents that tended to be done on the phone but that was never a call I'd make...and if it was the neighbours kids I'd just turn up outside their front door and ask them to come out and not sure where this obsession with arranging playdates by phone comes from but they just didn't happen that way for me - this was the 80s.

Phone etiquette these days is a lot more about recognising the impact you and your mobile phone has on the people around you. And children will copy both you sitting there texting whilst supposedly having a conversation with somebody face to face as well as you answering the phone in a pleasant manner, appropriate for the relationship you have for the no sure there is an issue.

Most socialising I arrange these days happens either via work email, often copying in anybody who's supposed to come along - not even always full sentences but more like a text message, or by text messages or the internal messaging system if it's my co-workers. The only time I'll pick up the phone and call somebody is if it's people from retirement age upwards, who cannot be trusted to have their mobile phones switched on, or with them, or charged nor can be relied on to check their email several times a day, i.e. people more easily reached by landline phone.

As for business calls I think your company's phone system would have to be very ancient not to have caller ID. I can't remember the last time I worked somewhere where the phones didn't have caller id. In my office any internal numbers come up with the caller id, any external calls will display the caller's number unless it is withheld. And even the work mobile shows the extension number of who's calling if it's from a work lanline. As for answering these I normally say "Hello CALLER, how are you?" and most of the people calling seem to quite like that.

Also, certainly internally I will text my colleagues if that's easier than making a call at that point or if I know they won't be able to answer their phone just then but just want to convey a bit of info or whatever, or if it's an odd time of day and I don't want to disturb them - my boss sent me a txt at 7.30am last Friday asking me to nominate a time to talk later on - he was not expecting me to talk to him at that point. In the event I sent one straight back suggesting we talk immediately as I was about to leave the house and knew by the time I was in the office he'd be in an all morning I think it's very much a matter of what works in your particular circumstances. In fact I have had what can be described as 'formal business texting' with internal contacts I've only ever met once because I was not able to take a call at that point and that worked really well although it would clearly be a last resort!
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:27 PM on April 27, 2010

Not having kids myself, I don't know the answer to your specific question, but when I find myself answering someone else's mobile phone, I find myself falling back on the old landline etiquette: "Hello, this is X's phone, damonism speaking". It saves the mutual embarrassment of someone instantly blurting out something that is intended only for the owner of the phone.

The other bit of ad hoc etiquette I've seen is when I've been in the car with someone and they have answered a hands free mobile – where it is important to quickly stress to the caller that they're speaking to everyone in the car. Usually goes something like, "Hi X, I'm in the car with damonism".

Strangely, when I was growing up, my parents required we answer by reciting the phone number. To this day, I have no idea why they required it (it was somewhat before the days of privacy paranoia, telemarketers and stranger danger), but I still have the impulse to recite the phone number of the house I grew up in whenever I answer the phone. It's difficult enough picking up a quickly recited name, let alone recognising an 8-digit number (it's was actually a 7-digit number back then), so I highly recommend no one instruct their kids to do that :-)
posted by damonism at 6:56 PM on April 27, 2010

20th century telephone etiquette x tomorrow's leaders = lost cause.

21st century cell etiquette is a work in progress.
posted by ovvl at 3:30 PM on April 28, 2010

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