tech etiquette
April 1, 2019

Tech Etiquette: 8 Times it’s Essential to Call Instead of Type

By Heather Hurst | Senior Director of Corporate Communications


I find it ironic that we call these mini super computers we carry in our pockets “phones.” The voice calling feature has long since ceased to be the primary purpose of the device. Just check your screen time data. You likely spend far more time on email, text messaging, instant messenger, social media, work management apps—and a host of other tools—than you spend speaking into the receiver with a live human being actively listening on the other end.

In fact, a recent poll of U.K. smartphone users revealed that “making a call” didn’t even make the list of top 10 uses. Here are a few more interesting discoveries from that survey:

  • 27% of smartphone owners will not make a phone call in over a week
  • 5% never make or accept a call
  • 63% only accept a call from known contacts
  • 33% third will always reject a call if we aren’t expecting it

While I’m all about avoiding chit-chat if can get the information I need more quickly another way, there are lots of times when a phone call is warranted. But how can we identify exactly when? Here are 8 times you’ll be better off letting your mouth do the talking (especially via video chat), instead of your fingers.

1. When It’s Urgent

If you need an answer right away, don’t count on email, instant messenger, or another asynchronous form of communication. The whole point of electronic communication is to allow every party to respond when it’s convenient for them, without losing track of the conversation. If you need an immediate response, face-to-face or voice-to-voice is always the best option. After all, most of us are drowning in email, and our chances of seeing your comment or question right away are ever diminishing. A recent survey from Workfront revealed that U.S. workers have an average or 199 unread emails in their inboxes at any given time.

2. When It’s Complicated

If you find yourself relying on more than one assumption in the midst of your communication—or if you’ve just read an email from a colleague that’s based on multiple incorrect assumptions—you’ll clear everything up much more quickly with a phone call or a verbal conversation. For me, it’s always a big clue when two or more of my sentences begin with “if.” Then I know I need to step away from QWERTY and make an actual human connection to get us both on the same page.

3. When You Anticipate a Lot of Questions

It’s a good communication strategy to try to anticipate the questions the other party will have before you send that first email communication or text. The more back-and-forth you can eliminate, the better. If you find your mind racing through an extensive list of potential questions, cut through the clutter and just pick up the phone. This strategy may not be popular among Millenials, who tend to loathe phone conversations far more than older generations, but it will speak to the reason Millennials don’t abide verbal chit-chat.

“Making a call is not that efficient,” argues John Brandon in, “and it will keep getting less and less efficient in the next few years” in comparison to other, more automated and streamlined communication avenues. But if the reason you’re making the call is to increase efficiency—and you generally keep your verbal conversations both brief and rare—colleagues of any age will respond to that. Plus, the very oddity of seeing a phone call pop up from you, when you usually rely on other means, just might pique enough curiosity to inspire the other party to pick up.

4. When You’re Getting Personal

If you need to apologize, you may think you’d be more eloquent or thorough over email, but what’s most important is your perceived sincerity. And that’s much easier to convey through the warmth of your voice than through emotionless words on a screen. If you’re sharing unfortunate news, such as turning someone down for a promotion, a phone call will paint your words in a more human, empathetic light. If you have something sensitive to talk about, such as a performance critique, eye-to-eye is always best. Remember that email can be read over and over again, allowing the recipient to read different things into your words, depending on their frame of mind. So if you’re sending a communication that may be unwelcome for any reason, do the recipient a favor and say it once out loud, kindly and directly—and don’t offer a transcript for them to scrutinize and ruminate over.

5. Anytime There’s a Chance Your Tone Could Be Misread

“Anything you have to think twice about it, anything you think might be sensitive, anything that you think requires your relationship skills,” says Kwittken+Company CEO Aaron Kwittken in FastCompany, “absolutely you should pick up the phone. Don’t email.” And Kiwttken is a self-proclaimed “huge fan” of email. After all, you’ve put years of hard work into those interpersonal skills, and any form of written communication will be a poor translator of the full force of your personality.

6. After You’ve Sent Multiple Emails With No Response

You send one email. Then a follow-up to “move this to the top of your inbox.” As you’re anticipating sending that third email, consider picking up your phone receiver instead. Even if the person still doesn’t answer, there’s nothing quite like seeing a missed call to inspire a more prompt reply.

7. If You Spend a Long Time Laboring Over Your Words

I personally never spend more than XX minutes writing an email or an update in our work management solution, which we use to communicate and collaborate directly within the context of our projects. If I find myself rewriting sentences or rearranging paragraphs in an email or an update, that fact alone tells me that I’m not clear enough about what I need to say—or that I’m worried about being misconstrued. In these cases, it’s better to verbalize my thoughts, and then go back and post a clear and concise recap of what I said in our work management tool.

8. If Someone Calls While You’re Replying to Them

Let’s say you’re texting back and forth with someone. You’re in the middle of formulating your latest response, and right at that moment, the phone rings. It’s the person you were just texting. You’re startled, confused. You might even be tempted to drop the phone and run away, but you can’t, because those three tell-tale dots already gave you away. The caller knows that you not only have your phone nearby, but that you have it in your hands, with your fingers on the keyboard.

Now, this may feel like a violation of protocol, but give the caller the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he or she has already read this blog post, and one of the previous rules applies to this situation.

One caveat: if you can’t answer the call, because you’re secretly texting from your child’s school play or something, just acknowledge that fact in another text, beginning with, “Sorry, I’m a terrible person, but…”

We Need to Talk…

It’s important to note that when your team is taking full advantage of comprehensive work management technology, most of your communication will be embedded within the work itself—surrounded by all other documents, conversations, and other details pertaining to the project. This can greatly reduce your chances of miscommunication, even when some of the above situations apply. The more context that’s available, the better. Still, the need to speak face to face and voice to voice will never go away.

I recently asked people on LinkedIn and Facebook what their biggest tech pet peeves were, and many responses were around people jumping over boundaries—expecting prompt replies on weekends or assuming people should remain plugged in 24/7 just because they theoretically can be plugged in 24/7. And I’m definitely not advocating for more intrusive communication. Instead, I’m advocating for more intentional communication, where we acknowledge there are live human beings on either end of every conversation—and that sometimes those human beings need to open their mouths and talk, instead of hiding behind carefully crafted messages and the convenience of our smartphone screens.

Over the years, technology has certainly gotten better at making human communication more efficient, especially through these misnamed smartphones we all carry around. But technology shouldn’t replace human connection entirely. People matter first and foremost, and we need to make sure we’re using technology to enhance our interpersonal connections, not entirely replace them.

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