Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Let's start by saying hello: teaching manners for communication

Sometimes, my kids don't even seem to hear the phone ring.

They will sit there on the couch with the handset right next to them, and they won't so much as flinch as it rings, loudly and insistently for about 30 seconds, until the caller gives up.

"ANSWER THE DAMN PHONE!" one of us will roar. And then they will jump, and fumble for the phone, trying to find the right button to push, acting as though they had never seen a phone before, sometimes going so far as to talk into the wrong end. It's like some sort of Abbott and Costello skit, except it's 2014 and they should know better for crissakes.

For a while, my concern was only that they had good manners in person. And then I heard them answer the phone, and while my gut instinct was to wrestle the phone away from them with a warning to never touch the phone AGAIN, I realized that I needed to spend a little time working on their phone manners.

I would hand them the phone without warning: "Here. Answer the phone."

They would look at me with their mouth hanging open.


So one of them would obediently press the green button.



"It's a question, not a statement."


"Better. Now, pretend the caller is asking to speak to me."

More staring. A little more confused, if possible.

"May I speak to your mother? Pretend they just asked you that."

Whoever was holding the phone would silently hand me the receiver.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"You said they wanted to talk to you. I'm giving you the phone."

"You have to ask who is calling."

"Oh. Who is this?"

"No no no. May I ask who's calling?"

"May I ask who's calling?"

"Okay, what if I'm not home?"

"She's not home."

"OH MY GOD NO. You don't tell people you are home alone. You say 'she's not available right now.'"

"She's not available right now."

"Now take a message."

"Should I just make something up?"

"No. Jesus H. Say "My mother isn't available right now, may I take a message."

"This is stupid."

"No. This is clearly necessary."

It took years. YEARS to teach them how to answer the phone. Years to remember that people can't see you nod yes or shake your head no during a call. To remember that you must turn off the radio or television, put down the iPad or controller, and tell people around you to be quiet so that you will better be able to pay attention to the caller. There were many illegible notes scribbled on scraps of paper before they learned that you must take careful messages, repeating the number back to make sure you have it right.

After years of practice, I can finally say with some measure of confidence that they have got it. And now that the phone manners vis a vis receiving calls are fairly well developed, they are learning to place calls as well as they receive them. This is a whole new ballgame. Besides dialing the number correctly, and remembering to identify themselves, they have to learn the more subtle nuances of both calling and texting.

Rule One: How early is too early, and how late is too late?

We use the 8 to 8 rule at our house. No calls before 8am or after 8pm (with a few exceptions, because I call my mom at some really godawful hours. of the day). Because we live six time zones away from our family, they have a heightened awareness of time zones. They usually remember to calculate the time zone they are calling, to make sure it falls within the 8 to 8 rule. This also allows me to confiscate all phones and tablets at bedtime without debate or protest.

Rule Two: How long is too long?

When I was in junior high school I had a crush on a boy named Chuck. (Fun fact: this would not be my last Chuck crush, and neither of them were very good on the phone - but I still called them exhaustively.) Anyway, Chuck Number One and I started calling each other - though I suspect I was usually (always?) the caller - on a regular basis. And we stayed on the phone for hours. We had nothing to talk about, so I have no idea how we passed the time, but pass it we did. So how long is too long? Here are my guidelines: If you need to use the bathroom or get a snack during the call, you have been on the phone too long. If your battery starts to die, it's time to wrap up the conversation. If someone else needs to use the phone, say goodbye. If you are running out of things to talk about, or being distracted by the things going on around you and not able to maintain a conversation, politely excuse yourself and call them back later.

Rule Three: How many times is too many times.

This is a harder one - as I said before, I was definitely the caller in most of those early phone calls. It is easy to become drunk with the freedom of communication. Once your kid has their own phone or tablet and can start messaging people, you may find yourself getting A LOT of messages in the early days - mostly because they don't know anyone else's phone number yet - including their own. So I have given my kids a two call/text limit. You cannot call or text someone more than twice without getting a response. This will prevent people from thinking you are a stalker and/or terribly lonely. It also encourages you to find other things to do and other friends with which to communicate.

Rule Four: Don't leave them hanging.

If you get a call or a text, you should respond. Even belatedly. Even if only to signify that you received it. I think the height of rudeness is not returning a call or text. And as my kids are finding their way through the various forms of communication, I am noticing that some of the kids have a delayed response, because they might be (gasp!) doing something else. Some kids, however, do not respond at all. I have pointed the difference out to my children, and assured them that yes, the friend saw their message (because look - it even says what time they read it!) and no, apparently you are not going to get a response to your question/invitation/greeting. So move on. This is a solid piece of advice in general.

And so here we are. My kids are both armed with devices to aid in communication, and some form of guidance in how to communicate both effectively and politely. Whether they choose to follow these guidelines is entirely up to them. Considering that Max still has no idea what his phone number is, I think we're safe practicing on telemarketers for now.

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