I can’t talk right now

Sometimes things just don’t make sense. Here’s one of them: You are talking, maybe one-on-one or maybe in a meeting, shopping, having a meal or participating in any number of daily activities. The ubiquitous cell phone rings, halting everything until someone in the group reaches for their phone, checks caller ID and simultaneously realizes that,oops, their phone should have been on silent or vibrate.

This happens to all of us, and it usually happens at the very worst moment. What happens next separates the courteous and respectful from the rest of the crowd.  We’ve already committed one faux pas by forgetting to turn off our ringer–what do we do now? Decisions, decsions.  Should you:

  1. Turn the ringer off as quickly as you can and let the call go to your voice mail?  Then return to the conversation with as little disruption as possible, meekly uttering a quick “I’m sorry”.
  2. Excuse yourself, leave the group and take the call?  Turn your phone to vibrate or silent before returning to the group.
  3. Answer the call and explain to the caller that you can’t talk right now but you will call them back “in a minute”?

Depending on the circumstances, Options 1 or 2 are acceptable. Unfortunately, Option 3 is many times the option of choice even though it makes no sense, violating every rule of respect and courtesy. Isn’t this why we have voice mail? Most of us even have a voice mail message that says something like “This is Alice. I’m not available right now but will call you back as soon as I can.” The Option 3 offender usually tries to whisper the five offending words (I-can’t-talk-right-now), as if whispering somehow diminishes the interruption. An embarrassing pause ensues while the offender whispers the same words the caller would hear on voice mail.

Turning off the ringer and meekly apologizing is the best remedy. To disrupt the conversation further by answering the phone would signify to your original group that they are not as important to you as whoever is calling. Apologize for your faux pas and continue without bringing too much attention to yourself. You may want to excuse yourself at the next convenient pause and return the call if you feel it might be important. Otherwise, wait until you are done with conversation #1 before starting another one.

The second option is acceptable if you are expecting something really important, such as a call from a child or parent, or if you have explained to your group in advance that you are expecting an important call and have asked them if it’s OK to take the call.

If you are an I-can’t-talk-right-now offender, you have lots of company. And this is just one of many unintentional faux pas we encounter every day with technology abounding and becoming more and more sophisticated.  While technology has provided us with personal security, convenience and ability to get things done more quickly, it has also enabled even the most polite among us to be rude in ways we would never have thought of a few years ago. A face-to-face conversation should always take precedence over a phone call. Interruptions should be kept to a minimum. Keep your conversations private.

And if you can’t talk right now… don’t answer the phone.

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