Tech Etiquette: The Secret Language of Call Rejection

Sorry I can’t pick up the phone now.

How do you end a phone call before it starts?

What’s the right thing to do when someone calls your mobile phone and you don’t want to take the call? Do you let your phone buzz until it goes to voicemail? Do you silence the ringer on your end but let the caller think it’s still actually ringing on yours? Or do you “reject” the call and send it to voicemail immediately? Different actions mean different things, in a new, modern dance of non-communication.

I believe in actively rejecting calls. Although “rejecting” is such a loaded word. All it means is that I can’t talk at the moment, and I’m letting the caller know. I could be in a meeting. Or having dinner with my family. Maybe I find the caller tiresome and don’t want to talk.

If I could spare the attention to send a text message, I would, just to clear things up. But when we reject a call and don’t text, it’s for a reason, and it’s not our responsibility to spell it out. All the instant rejection means is, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now.” It’s respectful of everyone’s time.

What about the other options? If you take no action, and let the call ring and ring (even if you have silenced the ringer on your end without rejecting the call), the caller could assume that you’re open to talking, but for some reason you didn’t hear the phone ring or buzz. So, sure, it makes sense to them to call back a second time. Unless, maybe, you’re trying to sleep and the phone’s in another room. Then calling back is pretty disruptive. But how is the caller to know? That’s another reason I believe in rejecting calls when possible. (I also approve of using whatever “do not disturb” function a phone has — although that’s something I almost always forget to turn on when I settle in for a nap.)

The second callback is the Zone of Confusion, since there’s a another player in our communication that complicates things: The technology itself. Mobile phone networks are flaky, and sometimes calls drop before they connect, or a phone just won’t ring at all on one end, and the call goes straight to voicemail. If that happens, the caller is within their rights to try again. If you reject the call again, then there should be no mistaking the intent. It’s the way you say, “Yes, I really am busy, so sorry.” The caller can also send a text: “Can you talk now?” is a good opener.

There’s also the Brutal Reject, which sends an extremely clear message that talking is not an option. To do that, you answer the call, but then hang up without uttering a word. This kind of rejection prevents the caller from even leaving a voicemail. The caller’s only acceptable response to this is to send a text message, but the sender should under no circumstances expect your rapid reply. Especially since you might move from the Brutal Reject directly to full Nuclear Rejection Protocol, which is to shut down your phone entirely.

Or maybe the caller is calling for something truly urgent, and for some reason can’t text to tell you, “This is truly urgent, we need to speak.” In that case, if the caller calls a third time, you really must pick up. That’s the language: Three calls means emergency. And there’s a corollary, which we can call the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” rule: it is inexcusably rude to call three times unless something is on fire.

I have some very impatient people in my life who need to know this. I love them, but it’s not always the right time for a conversation. I hope this helps.