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MISS CONDUCT

Why it’s time to stop leaving voice mail messages

Plus: Tips on dealing with the aftermath of houseguests.

Need advice dealing with a difficult situation? Send your questions to Miss Conduct.

It seems everyone has cellphones. Usually, husband and wife each have a number, so if it makes no difference who I would like to talk to, or, I want them both to know something, which do I call? Often that one person does not share the info with the other, and so their spouse is clueless as to what is happening. The other problem I often find: friends who do not check their phone voice mail, and thus I cannot make contact. Often it is something important I need to know or tell them.

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E.C. / Middleborough

And this is why I say the column is about “ethics, etiquette, and engineering!” Sometimes the problem is the people, and sometimes it’s the stuff. You’ve got an engineering problem, which is that your primary communication technology isn’t one that other people in your life use much, or effectively. It’s not just your friends, either. You’re right that nearly everyone has cellphones — but often the last thing they’re using them for is actual phone calls. (Voice mails are so widely disliked that they are to Internet meme culture what airline food was to 1990s stand-up comedy.)

What used to work for you doesn’t anymore, so it’s time to make a change. You don’t need to get on social media if the idea alarms you, but you do need to start using e-mail and text messaging. Not only are those more popular technologies, but you can e-mail and text multiple people at a time, which solves the one heart/two phone problem.

If there are specific people whom you sometimes need to get in touch with on short notice, speak with them personally about the best way to do that. You may find out that your views about what is important/urgent are different, so be prepared for that.

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My wife and I recently let some out-of-state friends use our home while we were traveling. Upon return, we noticed that several small items were missing (not valuable) and an appliance was damaged. We can’t agree on the best way to bring this up with them without being accusatory.

M.H. / Meredith, New Hampshire

There isn’t really a non-accusatory way to ask someone if they did something. You can offer them an opportunity to tell you, with something like “When you were here, did you happen to notice if Item X was in the living room/working/whatever? It’s missing/broken.”

But do you and your spouse fundamentally disagree about phrasing, or about what you’re hoping to get out of speaking to your friends about this? Talk through how you’d like the conversation to go and make sure you’re on the same page before speaking up. Also, think about what medium would be best — mentioning it in conversation puts them on the spot, but texts and e-mails can come off as more brusque than intended. You know your friends better than I do; you’ll know what’s the most comfortable way to bring up uncomfortable topics.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.