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What Does “At My Earliest Convenience” Mean?

I often hear people say on their outgoing work voice mail messages, “I will call you back at my earliest convenience.” It rubs me the wrong way. I think the intention is to convey “as soon as I can.” But with the word choice “convenience,” it conveys more of “when I’m ready without regard to your needs.” Am I being persnickety? I would really appreciate knowing your thoughts. Thank you.

J. L., Farmington, CT

Merriam Webster Dictionary online defines persnickety this way:

a: fussy about small details : fastidious a persnickety teacher

b : having the characteristics of a snob

While I don’t think your reaction is snobbish, I do think it could be characterized as focused on small details.

Many of the etiquette questions I receive are really issues in which one person is frustrated by another person’s idiosyncrasies or when misunderstandings mushroom into big issues because people don’t know what is actually meant by the words being used. Your situation is a perfect example.

“At my earliest convenience” probably isn’t the best word choice. I think you are right that it conveys a message of “when I’m ready regardless of your needs.” But I doubt that the writer meant it in an intentionally demeaning, derogatory or selfish way. It was probably just the automatic obverse to “Please call me back at your earliest convenience.” So I recommend assigning it the meaning “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” It’ll become one less small detail to distract you.

Bottom line: In business it becomes very important to decide which issues you are going to bring up and which ones you are going to let slide. Certainly, taking everyone to task for every small thing they do that you don’t like isn’t the way to build good work relationships. If we did hold people accountable for all those small annoyances, we would quickly become known as “the Complainer.”

The workplace is a perfect environment for letting small details escalate into big problems. After all, you’re at work eight hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks of the year. You probably spend more waking time at work than you do with your significant other and/or family or friends. You’re meant to get along with people you really might not want to associate with and who do lots of little things that annoy you, like leaving a voice mail message saying “at my convenience.” When it happens next, and it will, it’s okay to be frustrated. Just remember it’s also okay to let it go.

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