Telephone Etiquette

Bronwyn Holloway-Smith on Sam Neill's film Phone—a.k.a. Telephone Etiquette.

Scottish Highlanders marching across a carpark might not be the first thing that springs to mind when conjuring up metaphors for communication. But, in 1974, it did the trick for a young Sam Neill. Before he became an international movie star, Neill wrote, directed, and edited a seventeen- minute film Phone—a.k.a. Telephone Etiquette—for New Zealand’s National Film Unit. This workplace training film attempted to teach inept office workers how to use the blower properly. It was Neill’s first time in the director’s seat.

A narrator kicks off by defining communication as “the transfer of information from one to another … making oneself understood, getting your meaning across’. We cut from the Highlanders to monkeys. ‘All animals communicate, but unique to man is speech.” Next, a close-up of glossy-red feminine lips that say, suggestively, “Communication,” finished off with a saucy tongue lick.

What ensues is a comedy of errors, in which clichéd characters demonstrate good and bad telephone manners—and appallingly sexist workplace culture. The skits are tied together by a fanciful conceit, whereby a Mr Trench is trying to hawk off his invention, the Telepathograph, to staffers at a fictitious company, Kiwi Communications.

I stumbled across this curious film while wading through archives in search of past creative attempts to communicate the ins and outs of New Zealand’s communications infrastructure. I was struck by its combination of novelty and anachronism. For instance, it feels the need to explain that the phone is “not merely a useful gadget to decorate a desk, but a national and international communications network.” I also enjoyed a nostalgia for that idyllic red public phonebooth, in its coastal setting, and for the Kiwi Communications office décor—its quaint partitions, tropical pot plants, and surrealist paintings. One painting bore a telling Marshall McLuhan quote in McCahon-esque handwriting: “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.”

Neill was using film to extend the faculties of our communications overlords, the New Zealand Post Office. What does his film tell us about their psychic faculties, back in 1974? Historical context might offer some clues. New Zealand’s first phone call was made in 1878 and all phone services were controlled by the state through the Post Office until 1987. Phones multiplied in the post-war period, from nearly 272,000 in 1950 to a million in 1976. Babies weren’t the only thing booming.

Nineteen seventy-four was a significant year. The voting age was lowered from twenty to eighteen, Waitangi Day became a national holiday, and the term ‘Ma ̄ori’ was extended to include descendants of Ma ̄ori. Their Imperial Majesties the Shahanshah Aryamehr and the Shahbanou of Iran undertook a state visit, Niue voted for self government, and the tenth Commonwealth Games took place in Christchurch. On television, It’s in the Bag was starting its popular run and the thrilling finale of Studio One: New Faces aired. In the midst of all this, Phone strode forward with a message of manifold proportions: for Pete’s sake, could you all just follow this set of rules when using the telephone?

Neither the Post Office nor the National Film Unit would last much longer. In 1987, the Post Office was divided into three state-owned enterprises: Telecom (which took over telecommunications), New Zealand Post, and Postbank. In the 1990s, the Film Unit was sold to TVNZ. It is now owned in some capacity by Sir Peter Jackson, although TVNZ retains rights to many of the films. In 1990, Telecom, too, was privatised.

How does the concept of ‘Telephone Etiquette’ translate into today’s communications age? I pondered this on the night of 8 January 2022, standing in an out-of-cell-range estate in the Wairarapa as Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellite array passed over me. What about TXT Etiquette, Email Etiquette, and Discord/Slack/Teams Etiquette? Facebook Etiquette, Instagram Etiquette, and YouTube Etiquette? Or TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, and Tumblr Etiquette?

Presumably, Phone was targeting employees, engaged to answer phones in a professional manner. But people don’t use their phones like they used to. Phoning people is so different nowadays, with a plethora of communication platforms at our fingertips. When our mobile phones are doing double duty as both work and home lines, Phone’s etiquette rules need to be reexamined.

Its first rule needs modification: Answer promptly … unless you’re worried it’s a spammer, or you’re busy and can’t take the call. Some rules are obsolete: Dial carefully the correct number; Transfer calls properly; Keep the operator informed. Others remain good for any kind of communication: Identify yourself; Speak clearly and concisely; Be courteous and helpful; Always take messages and pass them on; Terminate calls courteously.

Although we have new media at our fingertips, they are still extensions of our psychic or physical faculties. Use them wisely to get your meaning across.

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