Why you should care
Because we can’t hear you.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Trying to make yourself understood? From the minds of OZY, the kings and queens of clear communication, comes Crossed Wires, a series of immodest solutions for all of your communicative problems.
In her 1993 New Complete Guide to Executive Manners, etiquette maven Letitia Baldridge contemplated the speakerphone: “It is considered an odious contraption for many people,” she wrote. “The echoing in your ear, the strange sound of the voice coming at you, and the unpleasant feeling that four people in that person’s office are also listening in on your conversation can make you feel ill at ease, or worse, compromised.”
The speakerphone entry came right after the one on faxes, and while faxes are now all but obsolete, the speakerphone is alive, well and as odious a contraption as ever. The only difference is that everyone and their sister now feel entitled to use it everywhere: in the car, on the subway, in the goddamn bathroom stall. For this we can thank the smartphone revolution, which has brought the speakerphone out of the C-suite, where it was once a status symbol, and into the grubby, forever-multitasking hands of the masses. Ten years after the launch of the iPhone, we issue a simple plea: Treat speakerphone as the monstrosity it is, and use it only as a last resort.
Our plea comes on behalf a truly silent majority. We are the ones on the other end of the line — the ones who can barely hear you at the end of that long, echoey tunnel, or who don’t like the sound of your barking. We wonder whether you’re paying attention to what we are saying, and who else might be listening in. We are the 57 percent who, according to a 2016 poll by Expedia/ Egencia, find making or taking public calls on speakerphone infuriating. And while we’ve given up any claim to your undivided attention, we still want some of your consideration. Communications technology changes so fast that you might sometimes forget that “the medium is part of the message,” as Daniel Post Senning, of the Emily Post Institute, puts it. But when you put us on speakerphone, we want nothing more than to hang up.
Except when you are forced to hang up first. “My wife always has me on speakerphone,” says John Nichols, who owns a roofing company in Clinton, Iowa. “She has to hang up on me all the time because I have a potty mouth, or I’m saying things in general that shouldn’t be heard in public.” Though Nichols enjoys being privy to “boatloads of gossip” from his wife’s friends, he hates speakerphone.
On the other hand, Nichols and his wife have four kids and a gazillion projects going — and he recognizes that he might not get to talk to his wife during the day were it not for speakerphone. Which brings us to a select few caveats and exemptions. We know that caregivers of infants and toddlers need extra hands, so to all the baby mamas: You can ignore everything we’ve said here. Also, you must take a call while driving, OK, but only because “safety trumps etiquette,” as Post Senning says. And of course, the only logical response to being on hold for hours is to put the cable company or whomever on speaker while you go about your life.
But for the love of God and the silent majority, please make speakerphone the exception. That means you too, lady in the bathroom stall.