Call Me. Not


Who has your cell phone number? And whose number do you have?

My family hasn’t had a land line for years. DH, Eldest offspring, and I have cell phones; Middle Boy will get one once he starts middle school and starts walking home alone. My cell phone serves as de facto home phone on all forms related to the kids.

Not that long ago, a colleague from another department got upset with me and it escalated unexpectedly fast and seemingly without provocation. Recently, I found out that the origin of their irritation with me was a text message; the colleague texted me something that they thought I would be pleased to hear (nothing unsavory, get your mind out of the gutter!) but that wasn’t exactly work-email material; I never responded because I’d never received the text, and the colleague was hurt and angry. The reason I never received the text is that three months prior I had changed cell phone providers (now happily an Android and Google Fi user) and I also got myself a new number, because I had been getting spam calls on the old number too frequently. I sent the new phone number only to the people who I thought should definitely have it. I honestly didn’t think that the colleague ever even had my cell phone number; I certainly didn’t have theirs. I think whatever we had of the friendship is now gone, as the conflict had spiraled out of control, but it’s interesting to ponder the alleged trigger: an unanswered text message, because someone didn’t in fact have the recipient’s cell phone number. (As an aside, I will never understand why the colleague hadn’t followed up by email shortly after the unanswered text to see what happened; that’s what I would have done.)

When I host a visitor in a professional capacity, I usually give them my cell phone number for emergencies, but I don’t expect that they keep it and would be freaked out if sometime later, without a reason, I received a call from such former visitors. It’s understood that this information is temporary and for emergencies only. Similarly, when I visit, the host usually shares their cell phone number; I would never presume that it’s okay to ever call them after the visit and I never actually save any of these numbers.

I have the cell phone numbers of several colleagues from the department and they have mine. These are usually close professional ties. I have the cell phone numbers of my chair, chief department admin, two close collaborators in the department, four other close/friendly colleagues (two of them next door), and four close collaborators outside of the department. I also have the cell phone numbers of several out-of-town collaborators. With these colleagues, I usually communicate via email or in person anyway, and only use the cell phone if something is really urgent, cannot be done via email, or we actually schedule to talk over the phone.

Other than that, I have the cell phone numbers of the parents of my kids’ friends. Aside from DH and Eldest, these parents are the people with whom I text and talk most often.

I also technically have the cell phones of my grad students and they have mine (we have a web document where everyone shares their phone number), but I have never had to use these numbers for a vast majority of people. These numbers are most useful when several group members are somewhere at a conference together and have to coordinate meeting for dinner or similar.  (I have no idea how much the students interact via phone among themselves, presumably a fair bit.) A couple of times someone really needed to get a hold of me, talked to some of my students, and then the students called my cell.

Basically, I try not to disturb the others with whom my relationship is mostly professional. Email is good for most things, most of the time. I don’t assume I can text or call someone’s cell at will, unless it’s very clear (which generally means long history) that it’s okay to contact them outside of a very narrow set of parameters.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s your cell phone etiquette, especially with work associates? I am curious how you feel your answer depends on whether you are a native of the country of residence or you have moved a lot (like most academics) and don’t necessarily have a vast network of local friends.


  1. Love this post! I’m like this too (even though I have a landline), very zealously guarding my cellphone access and usage, and constantly facing “what’s with you and the cell phone?” vibes from others who use their phones all the time. In particular, I still use a non-smart phone without WhatsApp, and it drives some of my acquaintances nuts, but my friends are quite OK with my decision to not be on WhatsApp even though they all are on it. At work, only my grad students have my number, to be used very very sparingly. Cuts out a huge amount of idle chitchat.

  2. I don’t think anyone at work has my number except for two colleagues who are also close friends. People can reach me on email! I like the idea of having a google doc with contact info though, what a smart idea.
    Also, whoever got mad at you for not responding to a text is a wacko.

  3. Phone use for work is my new pet peeve! In my new post doc, my colleagues text me about work updates (literally, very technical texts, even short proofs). I am happy to give them my number — we regularly meet up after work — but I hate these texts. Unlike email, if I don’t want to think about work when they text me, I can’t mark it unread or save it for later. Two of my colleagues also share a lot of information over text and then reference things that “we’ve” talked about, even though only they have talked about it — why can we not start an email chain?! Luckily my boss, who I’ve given my number to many times, politely asks for it again when a phone conversation is necessary, and otherwise sticks to email or Skype.

  4. We still have a landline, which is my preferred number for all things. It fascinates me that some people have sent TEXTS to that number, assuming that all phones are cell phones. Mostly I don’t like talking on the phone, any phone, so I’m certainly not inclined to be reachable by everyone all the time.

    Some of my most annoying cell phone moments were when in early elementary school (so let’s say 2010 or so) I’d get calls from LG’s friends on my cell (perhaps I gave the parents the number when LG had a playdate?) which I really only have even now for emergencies. Very few people have the number, and those who do mostly know I don’t text. I actively hate texting but now have started using it with Tiny Boy’s babysitters, who are 20-somethings who use texting as a primary mode of communication.

    I would never give it to anyone for work, with the exception of the people I consider friends and get together with outside of work. though, yes, when we have guests (job candidates, speakers, etc) I do give it to them for practical reasons (usually saying “here’s my little used cell phone number in case you need to get a hold of me while you’re on campus…”)

    Mostly, yes, email for work.

  5. I don’t have a cell phone, so I don’t worry about texts. My home phone is a landline with an answering machine. My office phone has voice mail, but they never gave me the secret code to retrieve the voice mail, so I’ve never heard any of the messages. E-mail is the only reliable way to reach me (other than stopping by my office in person when I’m there), and I tell people that.

  6. Ugh, yes, the personal vs. professional on the cell phone (also: facebook). I hate texting, but I’m right at the generational cusp where people even a few years younger than me tend to use it as a primary method of communication. I am notorious for answering texts by email, for the same reason that I prefer blogging to tweeting (note: I don’t have a twitter account). I am not good at short, punchy communication, and it takes me forever to tap out what I consider a full response by text, so usually I just sit down and email the person instead.

    Anyway, that’s not really your original question. Like you, I will give out my cell number to visitors in case of emergencies, particularly since our building is tricky to find and parking is not obvious, but I would also be completely weirded out if one of the visitors ever tried to contact me after the fact. I’ve exchanged cell numbers with two other faculty in my department (which has five faculty); we use them almost exclusively for work communication (which happens with some frequency since our department runs a lot of after-hours labs). One is more of a friend than the other, and with him I’ve done some personal communication as well, but maybe like twice a year (e.g., he texted me and my husband once to see if one of us could babysit for one of his three kids on short notice when they were in a huge jam and really needed help, but that’s once in the five years that I’ve known him). I have given out my cell phone number to students in some situations, e.g., if I’m running a class where they will need 24-hour access to our lab facilities and might have after-hours emergencies, or if I’m sending a student on a work-related trip without me so that they will have my number in case of emergencies. They have never once abused the access, although I have certainly gotten calls that I wouldn’t consider an “emergency” but they clearly did. My postdoc and I have exchanged cell numbers for travel-related reasons, and the connection has come in handy once in a great while, and always for work-related reasons. I’ve exchanged cell numbers with various faculty in other departments, and that’s where the lines blur the most — those are almost always friends in addition to colleagues… I occasionally get social group texts, which I hate with a fiery burning passion and tend to answer by email. But mostly, my faculty friends seem to be busy and cell phone-averse like I am so it hasn’t been an issue. Or maybe I just give off such terrible nerd vibes and answer texts by email so regularly that everyone else has just given up on me as a socially hopeless loser. 🙂

  7. I do have a bunch of people in my phone that I would not presume to call because people give me their number at conferences and I just don’t delete them. Usually I email someone before calling. Lots of people have my number too but they never use it.

    Sometimes I just don’t get people’s texts or get them later, especially when I have a specific iPhone setting on and they also have an iPhone and I’m not using wireless. Or maybe it’s when I get out of wireless range, I forget. Plus I forget my phone at home a lot. People should not get upset about things like that.

    Mostly I only text a friend from grad school because she doesn’t use google hangouts. DH handles dc1’s play dates via text.

  8. I consider phone communications essential but my use/expectations varies a lot depending on the person I’m communicating with, mainly according to their age. Text and email are the main communications I use on my phone. Text is for brief rare communications except with BF or kids and is more private. Email for everything else.

    I text my teenage kids constantly. Even when they’re at home it saves shouting up the stairs when they can’t hear me because of their headphones.

    My lab personnel have my phone number but text me only in emergency, or when we are all at a conference and trying to locate each other. Otherwise we communicate almost exclusively via email since we have a lot to say and attach data etc. I also think they prefer the slight formality/distance, and they like the opportunity to think sometimes for a day before responding to an email from me. Other students who are not actually in my lab sometimes text me about stuff occasionally and I don’t mind since they respect common text vs email conventions. Also students will frequently use text to initiate a confidential conversation, for example if they want to meet with me to complain about their advisor or another student. The text makes it seem more private.

    My communications with other faculty are almost exclusively via email or in person. A few exceptions include 2 close personal friends but texts from them are still rare, usually just holiday or birthday greetings. One older faculty member ONLY texts with me since he struggles with tech and usually can’t get his phone to connect to institutional email, but I tolerate it because he’s brief and is helping me with stuff. A few younger faculty occasionally text me about business and that’s fine because they use it appropriately. So far, I haven’t had to block anyone!

  9. We also have no landline. Very few people have my cell number–I don;t give it out often. Most work colleagues use email to contact me. My students have my number in case of emergency, but they primarily stop by my office during work hours or use email.

    Sometimes I will text with people when trying to meet up with them at conferences, since it is more real time than email. Other than that, I hardly ever get or use texts. I am not particularly social anyway, and hardly ever use my phone for talking.

  10. I had a student who would send me photos of her suitcase she packed when going on vacation, a selfie of her at a wedding, etc. She confronted me and scolded me for an informal message, that I had *already* apologized for, in response to *another* stupid message. She’s no longer my student. There were a lot of other issues between us.

  11. Most people in the lab have my cell phone number. I never had to spell it out, but it’s meant to be used when someone is late for a meeting / trying to figure out where a meeting is, and the occasional “are you free to talk later today”. By text message in 90% of the cases.

    Other than that, the situations you describe (meeting up at conferences, visits). I never use it for casual / personal exchanges with my colleagues, except maybe text messages for support when someone’s sick or lost someone dear.

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