Telephone Etiquette

I may be an oddity  — but my parents taught me Telephone Etiquette.

Of course, there were no cell phones in those days [1955-1965].  The phones of my early childhood were  black, very heavy, with thick cords.  They offered no extra features, such as call waiting, call forwarding, or caller identification.  There were no buttons to punch — only a dial that rotated very slowly.

Evidently, parents do not teach Telephone Etiquette anymore — at least — not to my “wrong number” callers.   The awkward exchange follows this pattern:


[Ring, ring]

I  [pleasantly]:  “Hello.”

Caller mumbles:  “Is [incomprehensible name] there?”

I:  “Excuse me?”

Caller demands to know: “Who is this?!”

I:  “To whom did you wish to speak?”

Caller mumbles and repeats:  [“Incomprehensible name”].

I:  “I am sorry; I believe you have reached the incorrect phone number.”  

Caller demands to know: “What number is this?!”

I:  “What phone number did you wish to dial?”

The caller mumbles and hangs up — with no apology.


These exchanges always make me nostalgic about my childhood years, when my family lived on US Air Force military bases.  The Newcomer’s Committee gave each military family an “Etiquette Guide.”  Within the Guide were strict telephone rules.  Each child in each family learned how to correctly answer the telephone.  There are very good reasons for this requirement:

For example, my family spent ten years living on Vandenberg Air Force Base [AFB], the second largest Strategist Air Command AFB in the US.  Therefore, telephone communication was critical in the Air Force, where the motto is “Peace Is Our Profession.”

You see, my father’s work was in Missile Education and Safety.  Tensions between nations ran high during the Cold War and events heated up during the Bay of Pigs Incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  After the close of the work day, every commanding officer needed instant access to each subordinate, in case of an emergency.

We Air Force children learned to answer the phone quickly and to precisely identify the residence:

My parents coached me to say, “Captain Blair’s Quarters”  [Later, “Major Blair’s Quarters” or “Lt. Col. Blair’s Quarters”]

I always answered the phone with a strong, clear voice and said, “Captain Blair’s HEADQUARTERS.”   [I am surprised that no one corrected me.]

My parents coached me on all manner of telephone etiquette and, before I had my second set of front teeth, I could lisp the following helpful lines:

“To whom do you wish to speak?”

“I am sorry; my father is not available at the moment.  Whom may I tell him is calling?”  [We wrote down the name and number.]

If, by some rare chance, the telephone caller asked to speak to “Margot,” my parents coached me to reply:  “This is she.” 

I miss those old days and, from what I can discern, telephone etiquette in the Civilian World is on the wane.

For instance, my “wrong number” callers never identify themselves.

My early training taught me to inquire: “With whom am I speaking?”  

Yet there  is never a need to inquire about the name of the “wrong number” caller.   His name, obviously, is “Bubba.”

If ever, by some rare chance, I receive a “wrong number” telephone call from a polite, friendly, strong, articulate, clipped British voice, I plan to sit down and have a nice little “jaw” with him or her, about the “good old days.”

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