Smoke Screen

Q. Now that my phone displays the caller ID, I often decide whether to answer based on who’s calling. Is this kind of screening ethical?

A. This is just a high-tech version of a more ancient etiquette dilemma: when somebody knocks, you tiptoe to the door and peek through the peephole, then decide if you should stay quiet and pretend you’re not home.

One thing that needs to be emphasized is that there is no ethical obligation to answer calls, unless you have promised someone that you would. We are not slaves to our mobile phones! If you’re in the middle of a conversation, in a place where a phone conversation would be disruptive to others, or in the middle of an important activity (such as Torah learning or prayer), learn to “Just say no.” By the same token, if you are really not interested in talking on the phone but you are expecting an important call, then by all means you can avoid taking any other calls.

The real problem arises when you have nothing better to do than make friendly conversation, but the friend who’s calling is not really your best pal and you prefer to “hold out” for something better. We can’t formulate any kind of hard and fast “anti-discrimination” law for social life, but there’s no question that a person could be insulted to know that you avoid answering their calls because you’d really rather talk to someone else.

Here is a helpful principle to resolve this etiquette dilemma. Declining to pick up the phone is equivalent to saying to the caller, “I’m sorry, I don’t really have time right now.” Now sometimes, you really don’t have time. And on rare occasions, this noncommittal statement may be a tactful way to indicate to someone that you really are not interested in speaking with him or her.

But when you’re not busy and you would be (or should be) embarrassed to state that you don’t have time, it’s a bad habit to let the caller ID do the job for you. Eventually, your acquaintances are sure to get wise to your habit and will be resentful that you are avoiding them. Most likely they will begin to suspect you even when you are truly not available!

If you can pick up the receiver and sincerely state, “I’d really love to talk to you, but I’m sorry that I really don’t have any time right now,” only then is it appropriate to send the same message by not picking up the phone at all. We have to avoid insincerity whether our statements are verbalized or only implied.

The Torah tells us that God hears the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 22:22). Our sages tell us that this can even include a visitor who is kept waiting while the rabbi leisurely drinks something and gets dressed. While a rabbi is not obliged to jump to attention whenever a visitor arrives, he does need to be sensitive to the message he transmits by taking his time.

Likewise, you are not obligated to answer every call that reaches your phone. But you do need to be sensitive to the message you transmit by screening calls according to your personal social hierarchy.

SOURCES: Mechilta on Shemot 22:22; Titen Emet leYaakov 5:23, cited in Rabbi Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, p. 322.