Smiling In Hello-Land: 1921 Telephone Etiquette For The Social Elite

Doing research for last week’s Thursday Doors post I fell down a rabbit hole that had zilch to do with what I was supposed to be learning about.

[I’m sure you’re not surprised, are you?]

However this tangent was not in vain. I found something unique + entertaining, meant for a blog post, as you will see.

Keep reading.

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The following came from Mrs. Devereux’s Blue Book of Cincinnati Society, the go-to source for lists of club members and their home addresses for the social elite circa 1921.

Below are little snippets of telephone etiquette advice printed at the bottom of some pages in Mrs. Devereux’s book.

These snippets, put there by the printer I imagine, filled the page with text, while at the same time SUBTLY TEACHING THE SOCIAL ELITE HOW TO POLITELY USE the newfangled thing called a telephone.

These six little snippets tell a charming instructive story that I’ve transcribed at the bottom of this post.  It is a story, in fact, that I’ve gone so far as to dub: How to be a Gracious Member of the Grand Army of Telephone Users.

Enjoy!

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~ ~ ~ ~

How to be a Gracious Member of the Grand Army of Telephone Users

Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of life it is easy to lose the better things– the finer qualities.  About the cheapest abuse in the world is the abuse of people at the other end of a telephone wire.  It is the trait of a gentleman– the proof of good breeding– just to smile when you telephone.

The voice with the smile is the voice that wins.  The smiling man or woman who uses the telephone in a sensible way always enjoys the best service.  They never get the hydrophobia when delays occur in answering a call.  Quite often the operator is not responsible for delays.  To complete quick service the party called must immediately respond.  

Did you ever see the Girl at the Switchboard during the rush hour?  If you did you never would kick again.  Some of the people who are loudest in their criticisms would drop dead of heart disease if they were under the strain which is just part of the everyday life in Hello-Land.

There are some people who in ordinary ways of life keep within the bounds of calmness and sanity, but they shy at a telephone and look upon it as the vent for all the accumulated spleen of generations of grouches.  The Supreme Court of New York has ruled that telephones may be taken out if abusive language is used by the subscriber.

Edward W. Bok, editor of the “Ladies’ Home Journal,” declares that one sure sign of an imminent nervous breakdown is a disposition to lose temper when delays occur in telephoning.  When you feel inclined to go to pieces at the ‘phone– consult a doctor.  You have rung a danger signal for yourself every time you growl over the ‘phone.

The great majority of the Grand Army of Telephone Users know the value of keeping sweet.  It is a pleasure to serve them.  They have sensed the disaster that lurks in the poison which is generated in one’s own system every time a fit is cultivated.  It saves doctor bills to smile when you phone. 

The End

Published by

Ally Bean

Observant. Humorous. Adaptable. Pleasantly crazy. Midwestern by chance. Kindhearted by choice. Wordy.

105 thoughts on “Smiling In Hello-Land: 1921 Telephone Etiquette For The Social Elite”

    1. Had to comment – I think you’re referring to those ‘prank’ calls done during Jr. High years???? I remember them well, even the names of the boys we called. HA! 😀
      ps-Jill, I never imagined you made any prank calls!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Such quaint language, rather endearing, don’t you think? I remember my mom’s polite use of the telephone and mine too, eavesdropping on conversations when we had party lines.

    Favorite line: The Supreme Court of New York has ruled that telephones may be taken out if abusive language is used by the subscriber. (Who, I ask, was listening in to ALL those calls?) 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marian, the message and the language of this charmed me. I especially like: “look upon it as the vent for all the accumulated spleen of generations of grouches.” Can’t top that sort of exaggeration.

      We never had a party line because my dad was a doctor and needed to be able to use the phone stat. But I remember friends with party lines… and they were fun… in an eavesdropping sort of way!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Ally – This is so interesting! I must confess that I was stuck on the ‘hydrophobia’ comment for a while. Fear of water characteristic of rabies while impatiently waiting for your call to be answered? These snippets are truly priceless….and well worth your trip down the rabbit hole!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Donna, you’ve figured out what that hydrophobia quip means! I had no idea, but I’m sure you’re right. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed this little story. It was not the purpose of my research, but it’s a darned good one.

      Like

  3. Nicely done, and a good find. My mom was a switchboard operator for many years. How she kept herself calm while dealing with ill-mannered callers is beyond me. She worked in a department store and in a mental hospital – I don’t know which was worse.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dan, I cannot imagine the stress switchboard operators endured. People were then, and still are, impatient and indigent when it comes to ye olde telephone. Your mother, no doubt, put up with a lot of unnecessary abuse by those who did not smile when using the phone!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I have NO DOUBT many doctors would behave that way, especially back when your mother would have been doing this work. I’d say it was thankless, but then you’re thankful for the money she made so there’s a goodness there.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I love stuff like this, especially when it’s still so applicable. There are many articles now that advise job candidates to smile during telephone interviews because it is possible to perceive the difference in energy and can actually calm nerves.

    I also notice that articles from magazines and newspapers back then were written with a much more educated vocabulary and complex sentence structure. Not so today.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. nance, I didn’t know that today’s interviewees were being advised to smile during their phone interviews. How amazing is it that these suggestions from almost 100 years ago still hold true?

      Good point about the way in which these snippets, and old magazine articles, were written. The underlying assumption was that people were articulate and learned. Sad that it is no longer the assumption that underpins our less than literate society.

      Like

      1. My take is that when you are constantly answering the phone, pausing to smile gets you out of the mood from the last call. Sometimes it’s hard (at least for me) to instantaneously get over a really bad call.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. In one of his talk show visits, Jerry Seinfeld talked about how phones are now like warfare with blocking, unblocking, ringtones for specific people, etc. I love the “consult a doctor” suggestion. It might help in those wars we seem to have. Great trip down memory lane, Ally. – Marty

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Marty, Seinfeld is onto something there. I’d not thought of the warfare aspects of phoning, but there’s a truth to it. I agree about the “consult a doctor” suggestion. Were I to rewrite this etiquette for today’s world I’d say “consult a doctor trained in mental health issues.” Therein seems to be the problem. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Enchanted! I too was a miscreant. I remember putting on my poshest voice and ringing someone and saying Hello this is the electricity company here – just wanting to check if your refrigerator is running? Yes they would say – Well I would say, you’d better go and catch it.
    Interesting about answering with a smile and the energies being detected.
    Thanks Ally Bean – I also wondered about that agrophobia thing …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Susan, I remember your phone prank! It’s a good one. My father, who was older than most of my peers’ fathers, taught me the one about: do you have Prince Albert [a pipe tobacco brand] in the can? I still smile when I remember how much we kids giggled when we said: let him out!

      Donna, who commented above, figured out the hydrophobia thing. I didn’t get it either.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It is true about the smile you know. Interestingly, at the concert we went to recently at the Fox Theater there was a wall of switchboard with all the little holes and switches. You know I took some pictures. I was a receptionist for a long time but it was after the switchboard days. We did have 4 incoming lines though. More frustrating to me is the automated attendant…press 1 for English – we’re in the United States. I shouldn’t have to press anything for my own language! I DO NOT smile when dealing with that nonsense!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Janet, there was a switchboard wall! That’s fascinating and such a unique throwback. I don’t know how anyone could manage 4 lines let alone all the ones those switchboard operators had to deal with. Like the story says if you saw those girls at work, you wouldn’t kick anymore. 🙃

      Liked by 1 person

  8. During my working years, I heard that “have a smile in your voice’ bit over and over and over again. And it was true. If one answered a call sounding ‘mean’ – fretful, spiteful, angry; one would almost inevitably get a call that ended up being a shouting match at best. If one smiled as one answered the phone, one could usually soothe even the nastiest of callers. Knowing how to LISTEN helps too. In today’s world of telemarketers, spam calls, con artists on the phone and all the rest of the nasty calls; it’s difficult to keep an upbeat demeanor while answering the phone though. I know I was told once (back when landlines were common place and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet) that the caller was afraid to call me, because I always sounded annoyed when answering the phone. Well if you answer phones ALL DAY, you get pretty sick of ’em. All the same, That “old” blue book still has a lot of sage advice!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melanie, I’ve never heard this idea of having a smile in your voice. Somehow I missed that along the way– and obviously it’s been around for almost a century. I agree with you that with the advent of all the telemarketers, spam calls, and con artists, I rarely answer the phone at all if I don’t know who’s on the other end. And if I have to answer it, I usually snarl into it. Of course, I don’t like talking on the phone so I’m predisposed to snarling. However I don’t believe my lack of smile means I need to consult a physician– not in today’s world.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Betsy, I’m glad you enjoyed this as much as I did. When I stumbled upon it I was so taken with it that I couldn’t stop laughing. Sitting here by myself. Laughing. I mean no disrespect to the past, of course– but this is trippy and fun.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ally, I love this post. Lots of sound advice in it. Good manners are never dated. I used to operate a doll’s eye switchboard, where you have to manually connect incoming calls to the correct office or store in the building. Really old-fashioned system even for the ’70’s and I needed a lot of patience with some of the caller’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean, you’re right that good manners never go out of fashion. Of course, I have no idea if I’m supposed to smile when I pick up the phone and it’s a robocall… but details!

      I can imagine how much concentration it took to connect the incoming call with the proper office. Then to deal with unhappy people? What a job!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. My grandmother was a switchboard operator. I don’t remember her ever complaining about her job. But I’m sure there were some customers that were rude, even back then.
    I don’t remember where I heard it, but supposedly people can tell your smile on the other end of the phone conversation. I guess it may change the tone of voice.
    I always hated party lines, especially when I knew someone was listening in on a conversation with my boyfriend!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Beth, did I know your grandmother was a switchboard operator? If I did, it was long forgotten. I wonder if she just ignored the rude callers or if there were so few of them that they didn’t merit noting.

      Is that why you’re supposed to smile on the phone? It changes your tone of voice? That seems plausible to me. Interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not sure if you knew or not. Maybe it was because she lived in Upper Sandusky and everyone knew everyone else. So they had to be nice!

        Liked by 1 person

  11. There have been days at work when we have been understaffed and I have spent 4+ hours on the phone. I smile. I’m polite. Most of the people on the end of the line are nice enough that I can maintain my cheer with sincerity. For others, I have to fake it. For a rude few, I kill em with kindness 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. joey, being on the phone for that long would be tiring for me. I’d smile, of course. But would be thinking about never saying a word to another person again! Like the introvert I am. Telephones, then and now, are challenging, so good on you for handling the people so well.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Ally, this was such a hoot. If only we spoke to each other on the phone, not to mention in person, while being so prim and proper, the world would be a different place. This is even better than a vintage article that made the rounds on the internet a few years ago – it was a ladies magazine story that told you how to take care of your man, complete with making sure you always looked presentable, greeted him at the workday’s end with a smile, took his briefcase, and handed him his slippers … pretty shocking by today’s standards!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. linda, I’m glad you liked this. I thought it was a hoot, too. In fact I couldn’t stop laughing as I read these 1920s insights into how to be part of the Grand Army of Telephone Users.

      I didn’t see the old-time magazine story you mention, but I believe. The world used to run on the premise that a married woman’s job was to be appealing to her husband. Isn’t that why June Cleaver was dressed to the hilt every morning as she made breakfast for Ward et al?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ally – I want to share this post with Joan, a fellow blogger, whose blog sometimes features posts about “back in the day” and delving into history. She will enjoy this post. I did Google around to find the article that made the rounds a few years ago and here is the link below. The list is fairly long – you must check out the picture after the 80th (yes 80th) suggestion. Yes, this is how all couples read the newspaper together. I didn’t read all the suggestions on “How to Please a Man” (and hopefully that title doesn’t send this comment directly to your SPAM filter), but there was a meme a few years ago with the woman rushing to hand her man his slippers so he could slip off his brogues. 🙂 Essentially this “Good Housekeeping” article wants you to dress like June Cleaver greeting Ward et al … always the perky wife/mom. Enjoy: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/relationships/advice/a27038/how-to-please-a-man/

        Liked by 1 person

        1. OH. MY. GOODNESS. That article is wack-o. Was that advice even applicable when the article was written?

          “Let men be the masters of exaggeration…” Not on my watch. Get real or get gone.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. I love etiquette from the past. I have a few treasures like that on my bookshelves. Fun reads!
    Wouldn’t it be fun to watch Mrs. D critique us folks nowadays and share her updated tips – I’m sure you’ve got it in you to ‘re-write’ for her…just sayin’…as in is that in the works for a back to the future kind of post?? You’ve got me wondering…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shelley, I agree that old-time etiquette is fascinating. It’s as much of a glimpse into the past as any fashion magazine spread showing the latest outfits. Both tell you what was going on.

      I hadn’t thought of re-writing these rules for today’s world. I once declared I’d write the definitive guide to blog commenting etiquette, but have yet to do that. Maybe someday I’ll combine them together and see what I get. But not soon…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, I agree. And if you live long enough you see those fashions come back and you might even have some of the clothes still so you fit right in. Like the bum-pack (aka, fanny pack from the ’90s).
        It is nice to have an idea stash for future posts, to write when we’re ready for them. I just forget where I put the reminders, and my scribbled thoughts seem to not make sense later?! Everything hits the paper in its proper time, at least that’s my motto! I’ll keep on enjoying what you share when you share it (when I remember to stop by, ‘cuz I’m kindof scattered in my approach)! Happy Friday!!!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I get ‘ya. I know where I put my notes for future blog posts, but I rarely understand what I meant by them when I saved them. I never force anything on this blog, either. I get to things when I get to them, and that seems to work for me. Happy Friday right back at ‘ya!

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Totally delightful. Oh, that one could be written and actually accepted/adhered to with the internet/computers/all the modern little devices.
    Once, people tried to maintain a level of dignity and decency and politeness in public – I’m beginning to think that’s what held society of so many kinds of people together and made it function pretty well. People kept their cool in public.
    I was also taught to smile when answering the phone as it would reflect in your voice – in business, we were also advised to stand up when talking on the phone as it somehow made you act more professional during the conversation.
    great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. philmouse, I immediately thought of you when I found this. I knew you’d love it. As a child I was never taught to smile when I was on the telephone, but I was taught to stand up straight by the phone when I was using it. No slouching if I did sit on a nearby kitchen chair. There was a decorum when using the telephone back then.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I will, from now on, insert an apostrophe before ‘phone, as they did. These are tried and true. I smile on the phone, even when complaining to customer service. And I gets what I want.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HEY IT’S J! How ‘ya been? Great to hear from you. And interesting that your husband confirms this old-time advice. I was never told this so either I grew up with a bunch of phone grouches or they didn’t know about this rule. Of course, now that I’m in the loop, on those rare occasions when I talk on the phone, I’ll be a smiling fool.

      Like

  16. That was priceless…..and certainly applicable to today. When I grew up in the country we still had a “party line”, where more than one party or family, often 3 or 4, shared a phone line. Our ring was three long rings….so you knew the call was for your house. So you were always polite and careful about what you said on the phone, as some busybody of a neighbour might be eavesdropping to get some gossip! Plus you couldn’t tie up the phone line too long. The took the party lines out in the 1970’s when I was a teenager, thank god!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thehomeplaceweb, when I stumbled on theses little snippets I was charmed and amused. They are from a different time, but oddly applicable to today. We never had a party line because my dad was a doctor so we needed a private phone line, but most of my friends had party lines. It’s possible that as kids we listened in on the adult conversations, but I cannot confirm or deny that happened. Hazy memory, you know? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  17. This was written about 45 years after the telephone was first invented by Alexander Graham Bell. 45 years, and it was still practically a novelty and needed a code of etiquette for. I went to school with kids in the 80’s whose family did not have a telephone…

    I bring this up because the smartphone was just invented in the previous decade. In the time it took the telephone to become an everyday essential, the smartphone will have conquered, become obsolete, and have the technology that replaced it also become obsolete….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. evilsquirrel13, as much as I dislike talking on the phone, I appreciate it when I need it and wouldn’t want to live without one. No home phone in the 80s seems really peculiar to me.

      You’re right smartphones will have come and gone in 45 years. I suspect we’ll all being wearing those button thingies from StarTrek as our primary way of communicating– or at least those of us who haven’t mastered telepathy yet!

      Like

  18. Oh my word! That is so hilarious! One of my favorites has to be this gem: “The voice with the smile is the voice that wins. The smiling man or woman who uses the telephone in a sensible way always enjoys the best service.” That and the irony of a man as the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal.

    I could tell that you were smiling as you wrote this post. Smiling while you write makes for the best posts. Or so I’ve been told.

    The comments for the post are hilarious too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. L. Marie, somehow I knew you’d love this. I agree that it’s hilarious and it made me smile while I wrote this. I wasn’t looking for anything like this, but once I found it I was all about turning it into a blog post. Different times, different way of writing– but oh my goodness!

      Like

  19. I sometimes wonder about how the telephone affected people when it was fairly new. Now I know! I could have done with all that advice the other day when I phoned an online store… urgh… I certainly wasn’t smiling, but I don’t think anyone other than me noticed!

    Oh and this reminds me of the difference between a Brit and an American response (not now, probably, but certainly in earlier days) when the American operator asked a British caller “are you through?” to which the reply was “yes” to be followed by surprise when the call was cut off. Here, “are you through?” means “have you been connected?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Val, I don’t know if I have a smile in my voice when I call– especially, like you said, when you’re phoning a store.

      I didn’t know that about “are you through?” but both interpretations make sense. Each side of the pond speaks the same English language… differently. It’s fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Kate, yep. I wonder if the rules for how to behave whilst using the internet will evolve and gel into an etiquette book in a few decades? It’s all so new now, like the phone was back in 1921.

      Like

  20. I like hearing a smile in someone’s voice. I think today’s teens will need extensive telephone etiquette training if they ever get a job that requires answering or talking on the phone. They have no clue how to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Margaret, that’s an excellent point. I hadn’t thought about how differently kids today think of and use the phone than when we were kids. And the etiquette in these snippets is even farther afield than when we learned how to use the phone. Times change, but phones seem to still be here.

      Like

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