How to Place and Receive a Phone Call in 2023: The New Etiquette of Using the Telephone May Confuse You

Reach out and touch someone ...

By Jonathan Spira on 26 September 2023
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Placing a telephone call.  It sounds simple but the etiquette of both making and receiving a phone call has been fraught with peril since Alexander Graham Bell patented the first practical device for that purpose in 1876.

Bell, who came from a long line of elocutionists, wanted people to say “Ahoy?” to answer the phone.  Fortunately, Thomas Edison suggested “Hello?” and that remains the lingua franca of telephone answering, with slight variations depending on the language spoken, ranging from “Hallo” in German to “Allô?” in French to “Alo” in Turkish to “Алло” (pronounced “allo”) in Russian, and “Hola” in Spanish.

In the period 1877-1878, the first telephone lines were installed, the first switchboards were constructed, and the first telephone exchange went into operation.  People outside of Bell and his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, the recipient of the first call, had access to something that transmitted voice from one location to another instantaneously, using wires.  This continued until the early 1970s, when Martin Cooper, an American engineer, built the first working handheld mobile phone, a device that could place and receive phone calls using what eventually became cellular technology.

And yet, people continued to say “Hello?” and “Hallo?,” not knowing who might be on the other end of the call.

Kiosk no. 2 British red telephone boxes or booths in Covent Garden, desgined by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1926

Meanwhile, voicemail was also developed in the same period, this by Gordon Matthews, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Voice Mail,” and the founder of the company VMX, or Voice Mail Express, which made voicemail systems for the corporate market.

Valdemar Poulsen invented an early answering machine in 1898 and Willy Müller invented the first automatic answering machine in 1935, although this device was not widely sold.

The early 1970s, however, also saw great innovation in this area.  In 1971, PhoneMate introduced the first commercially successful answering machine and the market exploded from there.

With the advent of such devices, telephone subscribers began to screen their calls.  With some answering machines, the subscriber could listen to the message being left and opt to pick up the phone.  Otherwise, the caller was left in voicemail jail until the recipient chose to return the call.  Eventually, subscribers were able to call their own answering machines and retrieve messages as well, and telephone companies, starting with BellSouth in 1988, started to offer Caller ID to home phone lines, a service that transmitted the caller’s telephone number to the called party, where it was displayed, sometimes with a name, a technology called Calling Name Presentation, or CNAM.

Bell System Western Electric Model 302 dial telephone, ca. 1936

And still, people continued to say “Hello?” and “Hallo?,” not knowing who might be on the other end of the call.

Perhaps not surprisingly, how we place and receive telephone calls has changed with each advance in telephony, a term that denotes both the field of telecommunications as well as the use of the phone.

Enter the first handheld mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X; text messaging (the first text was sent in 1992), the first smart phones (IBM Simon, 1994 and 2007, the first fully realized smartphone, the Apple iPhone), and all bets were off.

People began answering phone calls on the go, telling callers they were about to lose them when going through a tunnel (even whe that wasn’t always the case), and ignoring calls and letting them just go to voicemail.

This brings up myriad questions but the important thing to keep in mind is to tailor how you place a call (or don’t) to the individual you are reaching out to.

The iPhone 14 Pro Max in an Apple (Product)RED case

“Reach out and touch someone,” AT&T’s famous 1979 slogan (which was given a second life by AT&T Wireless in 2003), was created to generate more activity for AT&T’s long distance business and had its premiere on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.

The most important rule to consider is that how this minefield will be largely determined by your age, the person you are calling’s age, the relationship between the two parties, and the planned topic of conversation.  In general terms, the closer you are to someone, the less the rules will apply, although common sense should be the deciding factor.  (This means, that you are ill-advised to FaceTime your boss from the beach while you are supposed to be at a doctor’s appointment nor should you FaceTime the CEO of your company whilst flossing your teethl)

How we reach out has changed.  Many people prefer to be texted prior to a call and there are indeed many messages best delivered in text. Keep in mind, however, that text messages convey no tone, EVEN IF YOU SHOUT, and some things are best said in your own voice.   Leaving a voicemail has become a no-no in many circles although Apple’s new feature that transcribes voicemail messages as they are left (and allows the recipient of the call to pick up and interrupt the voicemail, similar to how old-fashioned telephone answering systems worked) may change how voicemails are viewed.

And yet, people continued to say “Hello?” and “Hallo?,” often knowing who might be on the other end of the call.

What’s next? Only time will tell what so stay tuned.  When Apple releases its Vision Pro mixed-reality headset in 2024, the humble phone call may take on an entirely new look.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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