Q: Business people frequently spend days playing phone tag before they actually talk to one another. In the course of this, each "player" speaks to the other's main switchboard and/or secretary a number of times, and in each instance, the receptionist or secretary asks for a number where the caller may be reached.

Certain self-impressed people peevishly snap, "He HAS it," and slam down the phone.

The receptionists generally do not have a reference volume to consult, have to pass on a message slip without the number, and may be criticized because their precise duty is to furnish the number with the name and time of call.

They may have the number somewhere if they are efficient but, in a very busy office, this petty chore takes up valuable time that is needed for less mundane things.

How much easier and more pleasant if a caller simply gives his return number when asked, even if he is calling the same person for the umpteenth time; this cannot take any longer than venting spleen on people who are trying to assist everyone concerned.

My employer, in an effort to keep his seriously overburdened desk free of clutter, attempts one time to return a call. If he does not reach the intended party, he leaves his name and number and throws out the message slip.

Since he is a busy international tax, estate and political lawyer, he may have hundreds of calls coming and going on any one day, and obviously many incoming calls are not completed. He would need another secretary to keep track of which of his messages needed to be kept and which were completed, so he needs the number on every incoming message I give him.

There is only one larger size of desktop Rolodex than the one I have, so you can imagine how much of my day could be wasted putting numbers on incoming messages if many clients got ugly about giving their phone numbers.

The same over-important people who cannot stoop to give their numbers courteously often want to hold for my employer, hoping they will be put through next when he hangs up. This ties up my line so that I cannot make any outgoing calls that I have been instructed to make.

However, my employer often has priority calls to make, especially when he has to catch people between sessions of the various legislatures. He can dial and get through to a new person before I realize he has terminated the prior call, so people on hold wind up getting mad and hanging up, with their blood pressure no doubt rising at a rapid and dangerous rate.

Their own secretaries probably dare not instruct their bosses about this self-defeating behavior, and it is not up to people from outside offices to lecture them, but someone needs to shoulder the task for the benefit of all involved parties.

A: Meaning Miss Manners, she supposes. Oh, all right, but only if you first allow her to vent -- not her spleen, which would be unladylike, but a gentle protest.

The game of tag that you describe is designed to run people around in circles until they don't know whether they are coming or going. When you conduct business in such a way that you are constantly trying to get the attention of people who are busy trying to get other people's attention, you cannot be surprised when the players exhibit frustration. The behavior you describe is more likely to be a result of that than of egotism.

Of course, you are pointing out, as Miss Manners is always doing, that a purpose of etiquette is to superimpose a better form of behavior on those feelings than they would naturally inspire.

She agrees, now that you mention it, that providing one's number repeatedly may be a convenience. Perhaps if you said, "Do you mind giving me the number again, please, so I can put it in front of him?" you would remind callers of the need.

It would also be polite for you to warn them about the difficulties and delays of "holding on," and, if at all possible, to check in occasionally with the holders, to apologize for the delay, give a progress report and ask if they want to continue to hold: "I'm sorry it's taking so long -- I'm afraid he's tracking down legislators before lunch and is likely to be tied up for some time; perhaps it would be better to call at 2."

That said, allow Miss Manners to suggest that much office business could be more easily conducted by mail. There is no use saying, "No, this is something that can't wait -- I have to use the telephone because I have to be in touch immediately," when, as you have shown, immediately has little to do with current telephone practices.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.