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20-40-60 Etiquette: On ending and returning phone calls

QUESTION: Is it rude for someone to end a phone call because someone else is calling? My friend called and while we were talking someone else was trying to reach her. She hung up on me to take the call. She said she would call me back. And she did, after talking to her other friend. I seem to always wait for the call thinking it will be in five minutes. Sometimes it is an hour later. This has happened many, many times. What should I do? Not be available when she calls me back?

CALLIE’S ANSWER: I end calls sometimes because a family member or something important is calling. I also sometimes forget to call back. I wouldn’t worry about it. I also wouldn’t wait around for her call either!

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: My friends and I were terrible about this when our children were smaller, and we just understood it was a part of how things were — most of the time we had to get off quickly because a little one woke up from a nap, was getting into trouble or started crying or something like that. Sometimes we would laugh that a week would pass before we had a moment to talk again. Today, sometimes people jump off the phone because a doctor’s office or family members are calling, or they need to answer a return phone call they have been expecting. So while it can be jarring, I know that it’s often necessary, especially when people have been playing phone tag. It helps if you tell your friend you are expecting a call or that you don’t have much time to talk.

Be careful about always cutting one phone call short to take another, though. Just like it can be considered rude to be looking over a shoulder in a room while in a conversation in case someone more important walks in, it can seem rude to end a phone call just to talk to someone else. So explain quickly why you are cutting things short if another call comes in and then follow through if you say you’ll call them back.

I miss phone calls, though, and enjoy catching up with friends this way, even for a moment.

HELEN’S ANSWER: If you are calling a friend and another call comes in, you can ignore it, or end the call and answer the incoming call. If you choose to get off of the phone and take the call, and promise to call the friend back, be sure you do so. That friend could be waiting for the call, thinking you are calling back immediately. We tend to say "I will call you right back” when disengaging from a phone call. We have a choice as to whether to answer or not if the caller takes too long to return the call.

Maybe, it would be best to let the call go to voicemail and then return the call. I have been on both ends of this question. If a call comes through that I need to answer for work, I immediately take the call, and hang up on my friend. Sometimes I forget to call back. I also have had people hang up to take any call that comes in, and I have waited patiently to be called back. It might be best just to say, “I am so sorry, I have to go and take this call.

Hopefully we can talk another time.”

GUEST’S ANSWER: Chuck Ainsworth, civic leader: When I am expecting an important call that I must take, I tell the person I am talking to that it may ring in and I will call them back.

Always return the call in a timely manner, an hour is not timely. If I am talking to someone and the incoming call is unimportant or an unknown number, I assume that they will leave a voice mail that I can return later.

I, too, agree that it is rude to ignore someone for another caller. Some retail stores are notorious for ignoring the customer standing in front of them to take a call and continue talking. I am always willing to hold when I call a store and they tell me that they have a customer they are attending — good form.

As to the question of how to handle the poor telephone etiquette of your friend, only you can decide. You could choose to not be available as you stated or possibly call her then take another call (real or pretend). She may get the message but don’t count on it. Rudeness seems to be the “new normal” for our society.

If you are disturbed about this behavior, ask your grandparents, or probably great grandparents, about being on a “party line!”

Since 2009 Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth, 40-plus and Helen, 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email