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What Is Phone Tag?

By Angela Farrer
Updated May 16, 2024
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Phone tag refers to the common occurrence in which two busy people keep trying to reach one another on the phone but continue to miss the calls on both ends. Each consistently reaches a voicemail or answering machine when attempting to return the other person's call. Some people report that phone tag has increased due to the prevalence of cell phones, but studies actually show that the term dates back to the mid-1980s when answering machines first become commonplace in homes and businesses. Playing phone tag for a prolonged time period is generally considered improper phone etiquette, and several suggested guidelines exist to help minimize it.

An ongoing phone tag game often results from conflicts in scheduling, as one party never seems to have the free time to return a call close to the time the other person left the corresponding voicemail message. Phone tag can also sometimes be a result of underlying conflict between two people. One often deliberately avoids calling at a time when the other is likely to be free to pick up the phone. Brief answering machine messages usually substitute for direct conversation that would require both parties to address their underlying issues.

When phone tag is unintentional rather than a result of conflict, it can often be seen as a minor irritation at first. The level of annoyance can generally grow as both parties continue to miss one another's calls. Common tactics for avoiding games of phone tag include some planning ahead and attention to specifics. Detailed messages with a time to call back are usually effective measures, as are opening voicemail greetings with times of general unavailability. Email and instant messaging are also acceptable substitutes for phone messages when the conversation is intended to be brief.

Correct phone etiquette also places limits on the number of calls in this type of miscommunication. If more than two messages have been left for both parties, the last person to receive the latest message often has the option not to call back. When one person leaves a message commenting on the ongoing missed calls, this remark can often be interpreted as permission not to call back as well. Instead of continuing with the phone calls, the two parties can sometimes wait until they see one another in person to have the needed conversation. They can alternately send the messages through email and allow one another to answer when convenient.

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Discussion Comments

By animegal — On Jan 11, 2012

I've found that I have managed to avoid instances of phone tag ever since social networking got really huge. I always hated having conversations via answering machines but with the ability to leave instant messages on a profile there is a sense of accountability there. It is easy to ignore a private message on your phone and call back to another answering machine. I think that having that message out there for everyone to see really cuts back on issues. I think more businesses should get on with work social networking. I can imagine it would save a ton of time and money.

By letshearit — On Jan 10, 2012

@manykitties2 - What I would suggest is leaving a message on their phone to show that you called and e-mail them a few options for meeting up. I have had trouble with arranging meetings with my coworkers too and sometimes you have to leave the ball in your court so you aren't stressed out.

To cover yourself I would keep a record of who you have called and when. Combined with an e-mail follow up you are in the clear if the people you are calling don't get back to you and you can't get work done. I would slip a note to your supervisor if people keep frustrating you with phone tag.

By manykitties2 — On Jan 09, 2012

There is nothing I hate more than playing phone tag with people I work with. It seems like some people are never near their phones and refuse to call you make in a timely manner. I have one coworker who I always end up trading messages with over the week. It can take us ages to set up a time that we can both meet.

I am wondering if there are any really good tricks for arranging meetings without having to get around people's answering machines?

I am not under any illusion and am positive people are call screening so they don't have to do certain work. It just makes my job harder though.

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