New Norms Needed For New Realities

As my friends on Facebook know, I recently turned off the voicemail on our home telephone line. Even though I had a fairly stern outgoing message that informed people they should not expect a message to reach us timely, people were still leaving messages and getting miffed when we didn’t call back. But the thing was, everyone in the family uses their mobile phones — the home line is an afterthought. We never check the voicemail and rarely use it. (I am keeping the line for emergency purposes, in case you were wondering why we did not simply join the  25% of American households who have no landline phone.)

#ACRTW - Sunday brunch in London with friends. by Flickr user Andrew Currie
'#ACRTW - Sunday brunch in London with friends.' by Flickr user Andrew Currie

I got to thinking about “home” phones and “office” phones and “mobile” phones as I filled out a few forms today. I was being asked to provide a bunch of different numbers. I know that the purpose is to make it easy to reach me. But in my case, asking for a bunch of numbers from me makes it harder to reach me, because the best way to reach me is to call my cell. Period. (I do use Google Voice, and will be writing an article about different ways to use that in a few days.)

Why did people call our “home” line and try to leave a message, even though we asked them not to? Habit. Why do organizations ask for a series of numbers, even though most people could just as easily provide one number and be just as reachable? Habit.

Old Habits

Well, “habit” might not be the right word. It’s that our norms have not quite caught up with reality. Norms are powerful things. They direct what we do, often subconsciously. For instance, in filling out my forms, the thought crossed my mind that it would be most useful if I just put the same number in “work,” “home,” and “mobile” fields. But I didn’t (now I wish I did).

More and more, even people who have a “traditional” job are reachable in ways that they never used to be. Signals reach us immediately, regardless of time of day. It used to be important to know different numbers for people, so you could use different mechanisms based on time of day — not so much anymore. Chances are that calling the office number at 10:00 pm will engage the auto-forward, or you will leave a voicemail that will immediately ping the recipient. Either way, that late night “work call” is going to interrupt the recipient’s enjoyment of Bones — because they may well be sitting there on the sofa with their phone in hand, checking emails and sending texts while they watch.

New Norms

Some years ago I used to spend my Sunday afternoons “getting a jump on the week.” I would tidy up anything that had been left undone from the week prior, and send out emails that would be waiting for people when they arrived at the office on Monday. Slowly, life changed. I realized that my Sunday emails were being read Sunday, mere moments after being sent. Far from getting things in place for Monday, I was ruining peoples’ weekends. I confess I “discovered” this because it happened to me! I decided to stop ruining other peoples’ weekends in the hopes that the good Karma might come back to me. So far, it hasn’t happened yet, but I can hope.

It’s not that I was being rude intentionally. Nor is it the case the people who reach out to me professionally on Sundays are being rude. It’s not like they want me to actually work on Sunday; they are just sending me a note. Used to be that was a good way to make sure someone had whatever they needed to start the week. Now, such messages have negative consequence that they did not used to have.

My habits have not yet fully caught up with reality. If I stopped to think, I would know that even when people have a work email and a personal email, chances are their work email is beeping through to them wherever they happen to be. I just didn’t think about it, because this work habit is ingrained, and supported by the longstanding norm of separation between work life and home life — a separation that exists less and less.

I think lots of us are in this boat.

Now that communications are seamless and unified, we need to begin to develop new norms about how we deal with one another:

  • Organizations might ask for the “best number to reach” me, not presume that my home number is best in the evening, work is best in the day, and cell is to be used if the others don’t work.
  • As colleagues, if we decide to work on Sunday, we might consider holding our emails in the Draft folder and firing them off on Monday morning.
  • As professionals, we might consider establishing ways of unplugging, and of making it clear when we are unavailable — not to be rude but so others know how best to interact with us.

What are some other new norms that are emerging?

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

One thought on “New Norms Needed For New Realities”

  1. My husband and I are on the fence about the emergency purpose usefulness of our landlines, but I have kept mine for the somewhat monetarily wasteful purpose of receiving automated messages from my daughter’s school and the Mayo Clinic, and to give as a contact number when I buy something, in case the company is crooked and sells my number to a telespammer.

    I have no idea why my husband has kept HIS land line! He talks to his family via Skype, which is more compatible with his father’s hearing aid. MY father’s hearing aid is bluetooth and is best used with his Blackberry. (He says, “I must look like a nut talking to myself.”)

    Well, actually, I do know a reason why my husband needs a land line: there are people he would rather have leaving a message at home for him than calling his cell during the work day. But you could use a “cyberspace only” number to give to them, which would be cheaper than a landline.

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