Alexander Graham Bell, the story goes, wasn't thrilled with the telephone. The confounded thing was always interrupting his experiments, he said. We can all relate.

But these days, the phone seems more annoying than ever. We jump out of the bathtub and race to the phone - only to talk to a computer.We settle in for a friendly chat - and we're put on hold while our friend fields as many calls as a switchboard operator. We ring up a business - and talk to a machine that thinks it's Henny Youngman.

It's more than maddening. It's bad manners.

"People will abuse anything," says Joan French. "From alcohol to the telephone."

French is an etiquette expert who trains business people on phone manners. She knows a phone faux pas when she hears one.

Recently, talking on the phone with a friend, French was asked to wait five times while her friend answered other calls coming through on call-waiting.

"Finally," she says, "I didn't have time to talk anymore, I spent so much time waiting."

She would sympathize with Duane Davis. All he wanted was to talk to his friend in California. Instead, he reached his friend's answering machine - and a cowboy saga that lasted as long as some movie shorts.

"I stopped calling," he says. "I couldn't wade through five minutes of a message."

Phone advances have made life easier for some. But others say they have crossed the lines of communication into a tangled mess.

Here are some tips from etiquette experts:

THE ANSWERING MACHINE: You dial the number and tap your fingers while the phone rings. A machine answers. The recorded message drones on for hours while your dinner burns. Bad manners?

Absolutely. But not on your part. "No one wants to listen to a long dissertation," says Kathy Piper, editor of the Denver Social Register and Record. A phone message should be short and sweet.

Can it be funny, too? Some frustrated comedians can't seem to resist the temptation to try out their jokes on a captive audience.

Says Piper: "I have a friend who has this marvelous message that says, `This is 007. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to leave a message.' I think it's great. It always makes me laugh."

The jury, however, is still out on phone jokesters. But even those who support the practice say to save the frivolous messages for home machines. They are never for business.

Etiquette experts also scold those who leave the machine on when they're at home, only to jump on the line once they learn who is phoning.

"You know they have screened the call," says Anne Oliver, of Atlanta, whose etiquette book, "Finishing Touches," will be released by Bantam next spring. "While you might be pleased to have been accepted this time," she adds, "you realize that the next time you might not be so lucky."

Better to let the caller leave the message, she adds, then phone back immediately and explain you just walked in or just stepped out of the shower. It may be a lie. But it's a courteous one.

CALL WAITING: This is never a polite tool.

"It is rude to interrupt a conversation with one person in order to speak with another," says Oliver. "The busy signal is sufficient to let another caller know your line is engaged and that he should telephone again."

That said, etiquette types know call-waiting is here to stay. If you can't live without it, they say, your priority should always be to the first caller.

When a call clicks into one already in progress, ask the first caller if he can wait, then excuse yourself. Dismiss the second caller quickly. Then apologize to the first when you come back.

"I say, `I'm sorry for the interruption,"' says French, "and I focus in on where we were. I pick up the conversation immediately."

And absolutely never, say experts, dismiss Caller No. 1 just because Caller No. 2 seems more appealing.

What can callers do to defend themselves against the Call-Waiting Cretin? The best defense is a good offense. Upon hearing the telltale click of another call, avoid being put on interminable hold by saying: "I hear your other phone, I'll talk to you later," says Oliver.

Or, when all else fails, end your misery. Etiquette experts say it's OK, when left on hold longer than a minute, to simply hang up. It may feel rude. But one bad turn deserves another. "When they call back, I just say, `I had to go. I couldn't wait any longer,"' says Oliver.

SPEAKER PHONES: Speaker phones have their uses. They allow several people in a room to talk to the person on the line.

They also have their misuses: when the person with the speaker phone, for example, is the only one in the room. Why, then, does he need to speak from a gadget that makes him sound as if he's stuck in the bottom of a well?

"Maybe the person's not humble enough to pick up the phone in his hands," muses Oliver.

If you need to use a speaker phone, it's good manners to ask if the caller cares. Then identify every person in the room.

If it's a personal call, and you are simply filing your nails - put down the nail file and pick up the receiver.

"I don't care to carry on a personal call over the speaker phone," says French. "If someone says, `I've got you on the speaker phone, do you mind?' I say, `Yes I do."'

COMPUTERIZED PHONE SOLICITATIONS: Go ahead. Indulge. Hang up on the jerk.

Even etiquette fanatics insist you can't be rude to a computer.