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Forget Debrett’s. Here is my phone etiquette advice – whatever your age | Zoe Williams


When Debrett’s issued their ten commandments of mobile etiquette, the most surprising thing was that the first six were all a variation on “don’t just call someone, send a text first”. So, in no particular order of importance because they are all the same; don’t call without texting; don’t call loads of times; don’t be surprised if no one answers when you call, which you shouldn’t have done; if you did all these bad things and no one picked up, send a text afterwards to explain why you are stupid; if someone does pick up, don’t be surprised if they freak the hell out, because you shouldn’t have called; make sure your opening gambit is “nothing bad has happened”.

It reads like padding, which is weird, because there are at least a thousand other principles of mobile phone manners they could have mentioned. Please, gen X, stop leaving voice notes; it doesn’t make you seem modern, it comes off as if some infirmity has prevented your texting, probably arthritic thumbs. Young people: “Watch how I can text a perfectly accurate message without once looking at the screen” is not the spectator sport you think it is. Boomers: if you are in the middle of a conversation about something quite profound, such as the choreography of your low-carbon funeral, and whether a mariachi band would strike a discordant note against your wicker coffin, and the guy from the delicatessen calls, probably to tell you that he has made mini-lasagnes, you don’t necessarily have to beg silence from the room and answer the phone.

Millennials: oh my God, millennials, that thing you do where you hold the phone in front of your mouth and shout into it while you’re walking down the road, so that even the birds in the trees know what protein shake you had after your challenging workout, why do you do that? Young people again, thank you, we’re up to speed on the circumstances in which a phone call is acceptable, which is almost never, and only with prior written assent, but may I introduce some wisdom from the earliest era of the telephone: decide what you want to say before you start talking. You can’t just make noises and hope sense will accrue to them as you go along. Gen X, don’t increase your type size, buy some reading glasses, you’re making us all look old. Boomers, if for any reason your signal is poor and you can’t hear a person, shouting at them will not make them louder. All generations: if the topic of your phone call is to describe an argument you’ve had with a third party, in which you almost certainly didn’t say all the eloquent and witty things you are claiming to have said, that is content we’re all here for.

For the younger reader: Debrett’s got into the etiquette business comparatively late. Two and a half centuries ago, its core business was listing aristocrats and how aristocratic they were. Some of the side hustles that arrived in the 20th century, such as Correct Form, first published in 1976, made sense. Who better to tell you how to address a baronet, than people who are obsessed with baronetcies? But the idea that they should have the last word on nice manners, predicated as it is on the assumption that to be well bred is to be naturally polite, is just wild. It’s actually quite rude to be preoccupied by hereditable status, and lay a large number of landmines around the manner in which others ought to treat and address you, so that you can scorn and deride the ones who get it wrong, the better to feel in your gut the superiority that might otherwise seem a little abstract and perplexing.

Even if you are so well brought up that you never deride out loud, you’ll still struggle to be as naturally well-mannered as any one person with a baseline assumption that we are all born equal. The next phone etiquette guide should emit from a class-blind publisher, which is to say, Which? magazine. They could tell you which phone to buy while they are at it.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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