At Whose Earliest Convenience?

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to one of our readers for this:

I called a local city council member, and the assistant’s voice message said, “I am sorry I cannot take your call. Please leave a message and I will call you back at my earliest convenience.”

The usual formula is, “Please get back to me at your earliest convenience.” I’d never heard it turned on its head before.

Apparently the distorted version is gaining some popularity on business answering machines; a browser search brought up several business sites on which bloggers and commenters question the usage.

No doubt the people recording message with this phrasing believe it sounds polite. It doesn’t. Changing “your convenience” to “my convenience” transforms courtesy into arrogance.

“Your convenience” conveys the thought that that the originator of the message wants to hear from the other person as soon as that person is able to spare the time.

“My convenience” says, “I’ll get back to you when I’m good and ready.”

The idiom “as soon as possible” is another one that needs to be handled with care. I don’t know if it’s just my reaction, but to me, writing out the words “as soon as possible” seems more polite than using the common acronym/initialism ASAP.

Note: Some people pronunce ASAP as a word, but others name the letters one by one.

Compare:

Fred,
I need the revised brochure as soon as possible.

Fred,
I need the revised brochure, ASAP!

Little things, perhaps, but a lot of little things perceived as disrespectful add up during a day’s work.

If you have one of the “my earliest convenience” messages on your office answering machine, you might consider revising it. How about, “I’ll return your call as soon as possible.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


15 Responses to “At Whose Earliest Convenience?”

  • Tracie Marquardt

    I agree on both points. Turning the phrase around to “at my convenience” does come off as arrogant. And using ASAP is akin to an order, which doesn’t go over very well when you are asking someone to do something for you. Letting someone know the impact of not doing it now is a good alternative to insisting on action with those four capitalized letters.

  • Sarath

    Ha! Correct. I share your feelings about ASAP and have always written it out. Anyway, nice to know that delicacy is not dead.

    Sarath
    Bangalore
    India

  • J

    Thank you for posting this!!! I’ve always thought that people didn’t realize they were being rude by distorting this phrase.

  • Nicole

    I agree with”ASAP” sounding more aggressive than”as soon as possible,” and I think I know why. ASAP both looks and, when pronounced as a word rather than spelled out, sounds a lot like”snap.” This, I think, in turn carries a connotation of either a finger snap (in itself, a symbol of impatience) or the phrase”snap to it!” In other words, the speaker or writer wants it yesterday, your own schedule or priorities be damned.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Danny

    “… at your earliest convenience …” “… as soon as possible …”
    These both give me pause when I’m writing. In both cases, I feel as though I am presuming to prioritize MY request for the recipient of the message. I take care to say “as soon as possible” only when the matter is truly, and objectively, urgent — critical, even. “At your earliest convenience” is a bit softer, but the use of “earliest” appears to overuse that sense of urgency.

    My general preferred phrase is simply, “when you can” or “when it is convenient.” It seems these formulaic turns of phrase creep into common usage and lose their original and actual sense.

    People: simply say what you mean, and mean what you say!

  • Yvette

    If you look at the entire communication, in my opinion, it makes sense to say “at my earliest convenience.” If I call a business and I am routed to a voice mail, I would interpret that as the associate is business or unavailable. Tell me in there message that they will return my call at their earliest convenience assures me that as soon as they are available, they will contact me. I do not see that as arrogance. I see it as reality that they may be unavailable at the time of my call.

    How can they contact me at my earliest convenience? How will they know when I am available? I understand the usage in written form in certain instances, but I do not understand it on a voice mail message.

  • Julie

    I agree with Danny.

    I especially avoid the phrase “as soon as possible” for voicemail because it simply isn’t true 99% of the time. There is/are usually one/multiple little tasks we often do before we reply to someone’s message. We’re not really getting back to them as soon as POSSIBLE, nor should we feel that kind of pressure unless it were an emergency.

    I say, “please leave your name and the best time to contact you, and I will do my best to get back to you at the time you request,” with the only annoyance that I can’t figure out a way to not say “best” two times in the greeting.

  • venqax

    People: simply say what you mean, and mean what you say!

    So…what’re you getting at, exactly?

  • Dale A. Wood

    To proclaim “I’ll call back at my earliest convenience” is the height of arrogance.
    In contrast, “I’ll call back at my first opportunity” sounds a lot more polite to me.
    Why is is that nobody else has brought up the word “opportunity”?

    If the fire chief says, “I’ll call back at my first opportunity,” then I presume that he has fires to put out in the meantime….

    If a colonel or a major tells a lieutenant or an ensign, “Do this ASAP and PDQ,” then the superior officer has the authority to do so, and we cannot argue with that. In case you don’t know, PDQ = “Pretty Damn Quick”.
    D.A.W.

  • Sean

    I’m with Yvette. This post doesn’t make sense. If the voice mail message said, “I am sorry I cannot take your call. Please leave a message and I will call you back at your earliest convenience,” that wouldn’t actually be possible. The person listening to the voice mail message wouldn’t have any way of knowing when it would be convenient for the caller. They only know their own availability. Yes, they could have used a different phrase (e.g., as soon as possible, as soon as I can, at my first opportunity), but in no way is this phrase “turned on its head.”

    I believe the general principle is one that the person who next is expected to communicate should communicate at his convenience. If someone wrote a message to someone else, the message could say something like, “Please contact me at your earliest convenience,” the expectation being that that recipient of the letter communicates next. But if a voice mail is being left, the heard greeting tacitly recognizes that the next person to communicate is the person who recorded the voice mail greeting itself. Thus, it’s appropriate for the greeting to say that “I will contact you at my earliest convenience.” No arrogance here in either direction. It’s just a question of who’s doing the next communication.

  • Lauri

    Yvette and Sean, you really just don’t get it. When using the phrase “…at your earliest convenience” the speaker is requesting a response from the listener/reader, i.e., “Please do this when you get a moment that works for you.” Using the same idea, but reversing it to “…at my earliest convenience” is a misuse of the phrasing and is generally translated to mean “I’ll respond when I damn well feel like it” and/or “When I have nothing else to do that has a lower priority.”

  • Sampson

    I am one of those who has “at my earliest convenience” in my voicemail and I see no problem with doing so. People who object to this phrase conveniently gloss over the word “earliest” when deciding how to interpret the phrase. It doesn’t mean “when I damn well please.”

  • Terrell Sullivan

    To those of you that don’t get it, “I will get back to you at my earliest convenience” as a voice mail message MEANS that you will do it when you choose. The correct turn of the phrase is when a caller says “get back to me at YOUR earliest convenience.” The two phrases are completely opposite and only the latter is correct. The people who use it incorrectly have obviously heard it from someone with a superior intellect or station in life and are trying to emulate their betters. “It is better to remain silent and be thought of as a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt!” These “convenient” people are probably the same ones that say “supposably” when the mean “supposedly”.

  • Brad Tittle

    I assume that the person using this in the message means it as “as soon as I can”. All the people who have done it are not the arrogant types. I hesitate even to mention it. The problem though is how the message is perceived by others. We can all ignore stupidities like these. We all do for the most part.

    It won’t offend most people, but it will offend some. A lot of people will be stuck in between. It niggled me. A petty annoyance to ignore, but at the same time you are torn between helping the person out of niggling other people and appearing persnickety AND not helping them out and allowing them to continue to look like an ass.

    Little things like this add up and haunt you without you knowing it. People make little up checks and down checks based on little stuff like this. Sometimes those little things outweigh everything else you do.

    Which action on my part is the assholic? Informing the offender or not informing them?

  • John

    Terrell Sullivan: “The people who use it incorrectly have obviously heard it from someone with a superior intellect or station in life and are trying to emulate their betters.”

    Now THAT my friends, is the height of arrogance.

Leave a comment: