Bringing Back Communications Etiquette

Ahoy-hoy. That’s the way that Alexander Graham Bell suggested that we should answer the telephone. I’m sure Mr. Bell would be amazed to see that 150 years later that we routinely can talk to each other face-to-face on Zoom. I’ve been recently reading about the early days of telephony and today’s blog is a lighthearted look back at how the public reacted to the newly found ability to electronically reach out to friends and family. I must say that a few of the old etiquette suggestions don’t sound too bad in the day of Zoom calls.

When phones were first introduced, telephone network owners encouraged keeping calls short. In early telephone technology, a phone call required tying up wires between two callers – there was not yet any technology that allowed combining multiple calls to share the same piece of copper reaching between exchanges or cities. A call from New York to San Francisco completely monopolized a copper connection from coast to coast. An early British calling guide suggested that people shorten calls by not saying “hello” or wasting any time on any introductory pleasantries but get straight to the point when calling. I remember doing traffic studies in the 70s when the average hold-time for local calls was only 3 minutes. Tell me the last time you had a 3-minute Zoom call.

The biggest complaint of early operators was that people would walk away from making calls. There was often a significant wait for somebody who wanted to make a long-distance call – operators had to secure a free copper path from end-to-end in the network. After going through all of the work to set up a call, operators often found that the call originator had given up and walked away from the phone. Early phone books admonished callers to not make a call if they didn’t have the time to wait for it to occur.

My favorite early practice is that some early phone books discouraged calling before 9:00 AM or after 9:00 PM. This was partially due to phone companies not wanting to staff too many operators 24 hours per day, but it was also considered impolite to disturb people too early or too late. Many smaller telephone companies simply stopped manning the operator boards during the night.

Telephone calling was such a drastic societal change that phone companies routinely issued calling guides that detailed calling etiquette for using the new telephone contraption. There was obviously no caller ID in the early days, and operators often did not stay on the line to announce a call. Phone etiquette books suggested it was impolite to ask who was calling and that people should guess the identity of the caller rather than ask. Some phone books suggested that anybody answering the phone should tell their telephone number so that a caller would know if they had called the wrong number.

One of my favorite early telephone etiquette suggestions is that people should not use the telephone to invite people to a formal occasion. Something that important should only be done in writing so that the invitee would have all of the details of the invitation in writing.

Phonebooks included diagrams showing that the proper distance to hold the phone from the mouth was 1.5 inches. People were admonished not to shout into the handset. One California phonebook suggested that gentlemen trim mustaches so that they could be clearly heard on the phone.

Of course, at the turn of the twentieth-century foul language was not tolerated. Somebody cursing on the phone and being heard by an operator stood a chance of losing their phone line or even getting a knock on the door by the police. Wouldn’t that concept throw a big wrench in the current first amendment controversies about what is allowable online speech?

3 thoughts on “Bringing Back Communications Etiquette

  1. Another interesting fact was that many of the original switchboards were located in funeral homes. Funeral homes provided the ambulance services and were there 24/7, so it was a logical place. I understand that they also benefitted since someone who died would in most cases be taken to the funeral home associated with the ambulance service, which created an economic reason for a funeral home to help build the telephone lines.

    I once called to talk to an engineer at one of the small telephone companies (in the 1990’s) and was told he was not available since he was embalming a body.

  2. I’m sure the name Strowger “rings some bells” in the minds of many retired telephone folks. He, too, was an undertaker.

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