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.