Question: I was having a hard week at work, and on top of that my girlfriend started making noises about our "slowing things down." I really needed to talk, and I called one of my (supposedly) best friends to vent. She didn't pick up, even though I think she was home. And she didn't call back, even though my message was clearly urgent. Instead she sent an email the next day asking what was up. (“How r u? Let’s talk.”) Isn't it bad manners to return a phone call with an email, especially to a friend in need? I’m pissed.
Answer: I’m with you. Protocol suggests you return any message via the same medium in which it was sent. Think of it as “an i for an i.” Even a quick text from your iPhone deserves at least a text back, and a phone call requires a return phone call. That doesn’t mean you can’t email a quick note (or send a text) when you pick up a voice mail to explain that you’re out of town, that you’re stuck in a meeting or in the middle of a therapy session. You still need to return the call in a prompt manner (which is 24 hours for non-911 situations, by the way).
Your friend also could have called back (or even picked up) to say, “I’m in the middle of something right now, but I can tell from your message that you’re upset. When can we talk?” That would have allowed her to ensure you didn’t need her help that very second (to drive you to the hospital, say, or to stop you from doing anything drastic). But it also lets you know right up front that she needed to finish what she was doing (filing her last-minute taxes, or putting the baby to bed). Your feelings wouldn’t be hurt if she’d put off your relationship crisis for a few hours because she was in the middle of a plumbing crisis, would you?
I also understand why you’re upset that your friend passed the call back to you to return, because that puts you back at square one in seeking attention — oops, I mean a sounding board. I actually wonder if her response isn’t a passive-aggressive dodge to avoid talking with you. Is it possible you’ve been overdoing it on your emotional unloading? She may love you to pieces, but if this is your thirtieth straight call to vent about your love life, she may be tiring of it just a wee bit. I’m just sayin’ – or asking.
What you can do is schedule a “phone date” with your friend, rather than expecting her be available for a gabfest without notice. Those days of phone spontaneity seem long gone, and I actually find myself texting friends ahead of time to see if they’re available to talk. Even though we have chat, Facebook, direct Twitter messages, texting, email, and so on, friendships are so personal, and so valuable, as to deserve a little off-the-grid time. When it’s time to really reach out and touch someone, do it by phone.
The other option is for your friend to have emailed, “I’m crazy busy now, let’s schedule a time to talk about your relationship. When’s good for you?" These days it seems almost impossible to reach anyone on the phone (at least that’s what my mother says about reaching me), which is why we’ve devised the “phone date” concept. In my book, that’s a fine option. The bottom line: Friendships cannot live in email alone.
STEVEN PETROW is The Advocate’s manners columnist and author of Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at www.gaymanners.com. or contact him on Facebook and Twitter. Got a question? Email Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.