I have a vivid memory of sitting in my Year 6 classroom colouring a picture of a rotary telephone. Below it, in my messy cursive writing, were scripts that had been dictated by the teacher:
‘Good morning Mrs Green, this is Shannon speaking. May I speak with Alice please?’
‘446 5434. Hello this is Shannon speaking.’
It was the late 1980s and the correct way to answer a phone was drilled into us, and accepted as readily as calling our friends’ parents Mr and Mrs. Almost forty years later, there are still a number of people I cannot bring myself to call by their first names.
All my children’s friends call me Shannon, but I do not feel disrespected. Yet why do I feel that the corresponding decline in phone manners is somehow more insidious?
Zarife Hardy is the Director of the Australian School of Etiquette, and believes this topic isn’t discussed enough. “I do think it is a declining skill, with the use of technology and various communication platforms, we don’t treat the phone like the front door, we almost treat it as a nuisance,” she said.
Like my own experience, she says that phone etiquette was something that used to be explicitly taught at schools, but has since been crowded out by a jam-packed curriculum that now focuses on different social skills such as conflict resolution and leadership: “Formal communication skills like greetings, introductions and articulation used to be part of the curriculum and teachers almost demanded the respect of good communication skills as they knew they were essential to get a job and helped build good relationships. They also kept the classroom in an orderly manner. Due to the fast pace of life and the casual lifestyle we now have, these skills have slipped.”
But this is not simply the fault of educators or even busy parents, but a direct result of the changing landscape we now live in. According to the ABS, in 2018 there were more than 27 million mobile phone subscribers in Australia. This is despite the fact there were only 25 million people in Australia at the time. The Australian Communications and Media Authority reported that in 2020, 46% of children aged between 6 and 13 regularly used a mobile phone and for teenagers, this number is likely double.
When text messages were first introduced in the 1990s, each word-limited message cost around 30 cents each. If you lacked brevity, and ran over your character count, a message could easily cost a dollar and a conversation would quickly wipe out your available credit.
Australian school children however, have grown up in a time when text messaging is unlimited and effectively free. As Hardy explains “The biggest change has been within the last 10-15 years, children and teenagers avoid telephone calls with a preference to using text, snapchat or messenger and the skillset of greeting a caller and having a flowing conversation has declined and almost become feared.”
She goes on to say “Certain types of technology used by children and teens has severely diminished their communication and socialisation skills, particularly if they are used to avoid difficult face-to-face conversations that are necessary for healthy and normal development. It has become incredibly easy to text/email and often what we write we would not say.”
The impact of technology therefore seems to be two-fold. Not only has our access to mobile phones and technology diminished the opportunities for face-to-face conversations, but the rise in popularity of text-based messaging further has reduced verbal communication – and not only for students. “The little things in life always have the most impact,” says Hardy. “A genuine smile, eye contact, a simple ‘hello, how are you?’ We are losing them due to technology.”
Many schools are now taking steps to reduce the impact of mobile phones by introducing phone bans during school hours. As one West Australian high school wrote to parents, “a clear positive of the policy was seeing students interacting and engaging with each other as they waited to start the day, or as they had their lunch.”
Hardy lists some of the vital skills being lost by our constant focus on our small screens: “Eye contact – people lose the ability to look at someone as they cannot take their eyes of the screen. They speak in acronyms or short sentences that don’t make sense. Instant gratification – they need to learn to wait. The ability to listen,” she adds. “It is our greatest skill [yet] their brains are wired to move fast and they can’t listen for long periods.”
The deficit in phone etiquette – and manners in general – has not gone unacknowledged, with many businesses and universities now choosing to run etiquette programs for their staff and students. Manners still matter, but it might be case that explicit instruction needs to be reintroduced.
“Nothing trumps the human connection,” says Hardy. “And we should always respect the person in front of us.”