Friday, October 22, 2004

People skills: Part the first

These days, the phrase “phone etiquette” conjures images of people shouting into cell phones at the movies, but phone etiquette actually dates back to the olden days of corded phones. In fact, I remember learning the proper way to answer the phone. In kindergarten, my teacher taught us how to say, “Hello?” and “Who’s calling please?” and “Just a second, I’ll get her.” We even practiced on prop phones.

But I think that my P.I. was absent from kindergarten that day. The P.I. answered the phone by grunting, “Hellumph?” If the call was for, say, The Doktah, he would scream, “DOKTAH!” while still staring at his computer screen. He didn’t cover the mouthpiece or even move it very far away from his face, so was essentially screaming into the caller’s ear. Thanks to this phone answering technique, people – including other professors – would routinely ask me if I was allowed to get phone calls.

By my fifth year, the lab had grown from five students to twenty, and the phone situation was becoming ridiculous. I suggested to the P.I. that we get a second phone line. Knowing how he felt about unnecessary expenses, I had already checked with the business office to find out how much it would cost. It turned out that the department would pay for it, since two phone lines was very reasonable for a lab full of twenty grad students. But even though it was free, it was surprisingly difficult to convince the P.I. that we should get a second phone line. It was as though he thought that the department would secretly charge him extra. I eventually wore him down by recruiting his wife. Mrs. P.I. was a postdoc in another lab with which we collaborated, and attended one of the the group meetings where I brought up the second phone line issue. She told P.I. that one phone line for twenty people was ludicrous; her lab had only 10 people and they had two lines. She said that there were several times that she called and the line was busy, which was very frustrating. So finally, finally, we got a second phone line.

The second phone line did nothing to fix P.I.’s phone etiquette He still answered with a grunt and still shouted in the caller’s ear, but at least the percentage of calls answered by him dropped a bit.

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