The Lost Art of Actually Talking on the Phone

by Anna North

Look, we all know the phone is scary. But sometimes you can’t avoid it. Herewith, a few tips for making calls without sounding like a weirdo.

via weareallmadeofkittens

1. Decide if you really need to call.

There’s a reason kids today never call each other anymore. Actually, lots of reasons. For one, unless you are a creeper (or a journalist) and you tape your calls, you have no record of your conversation. It’s also hard to hear. So if what you really need to do is get some specific data across, text or email can be a lot better. This is especially true of addresses, and anything that’s difficult to spell.

Also, the phone is awkward, especially with people you don’t know very well. It’s hard to know how to interpret pauses, people talk over each other, and there are so many opportunities to flub pleasantries (“Hi!” “Good.” “What?” “I mean I’m good, how are you?”) without the potential to play them off that in-person contact affords. So I know I’ll get some argument here, but I think it’s totally fine, and perhaps even preferable, to schedule first dates by text or email. Same goes for hanging with a new friend or having coffee with a business contact. Unless you love the phone, go ahead and make life easy on yourself.

I talked to Barbara Pachter, business etiquette expert and author of The Jerk with the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us and Greet! Eat! Tweet!: 52 Business Etiquette Postings To Avoid Pitfalls and Boost Your Career, who gave me a couple more tips on when the phone is appropriate. First, “if someone calls you, you should call them back” — don’t respond to a phone call with a text or email. Also, if you need to discuss a personal matter, calling is usually better than email. Example: breaking up with someone you’ve been on a few dates with. Of course, some matters — like ending a long-term relationship, for instance — are so personal they should really be handled in person. But Pachter points out that in any situation where you fear for your safety, a phone call is better than a physical confrontation — though in this case you may want to think about whether you actually want to contact the person at all.

2. Get the names right.

This should go without saying, but make sure you know the name of your contact before you call her. And don’t use a nickname unless you know it’s cool. Pachter’s example of a bad approach: “Your name is Anna, and I would say, ‘is Annie there?'” She is right — if anyone calls me Annie, over the phone or anywhere else, I will cut them. People can get a little protective about their names, and it’s important to get them right. Also: when you call someone, don’t forget to say your own name. And when you pick up, unless you already know the caller, it’s important to identify yourself as well.

3. Speak loudly enough, and slowly enough, but not too slowly.

Again, basic — but Pachter says one if the biggest mistakes callers make is that “they don’t speak loudly enough so people can hear them.” And we all have that friend we always let go to voicemail because we need three playbacks just to figure out what he’s saying. You don’t want to yell into the phone — especially if you’re talking on your cell in public — but don’t whisper either. Pachter points out that this is especially important if you’re shy — you don’t want the anxiety to come through in your voice. She recommends having good posture to ensure you can speak loudly and confidently.

In a similar vein, Jeannie Davis, president of Now Hear This, Inc. and co-author of Beyond “Hello”: A Practical Guide for Excellent Telephone Communication and Quality Customer Service, told me it’s important for callers to remember to “moderate our rate of speech.” This means not racing through things, but it also means not speaking painfully slowly either. If you’re not sure what to say and you need to hesitate a ton, it might be good to plan a little more before you make calls. As Davis points out, it’s not too hard to ask someone to slow down, but it is tough to comfortably get someone to talk faster. In general, remember that it’s a lot harder to understand someone’s voice over the phone than in person, and adjust accordingly.

4. Be positive.

Obviously, with your best friends, it’s okay to unload. But if you’re talking on the phone to business contacts or people you don’t know very well, it’s a good idea to sound upbeat, even if you’re in a crappy mood. Says Davis, “If you’ve got a negative attitude that day for whatever reason, it can come through in your vocal tone. We tend not to pay much attention to the use of positive words and phrases.” But it’s not too hard to put those positive phrases back into our speech. Davis’s example: instead of “I can’t have a technician there until Tuesday,” say “I can have a technician there on Tuesday.” Sure, your contact might still be mad that whatever is broken is going to stay broken til Tuesday, but at least you’re not also infecting her with your ennui and existential despair. Save those for online dating.

5. Smile.

Says Pachter, “If you smile into the phone, it affects the sound of your voice.” Davis concurs. Especially for people who are shy about phone calls, she recommends the following:

They ought to get a small mirror to remember to put the smile in your voice. People hear you smile through the telephone. [...] I suggest that [people] get a small mirror to put on their desk somewhere near the phone just as a friendly reminder to smile.

She adds that smiling “lifts your intonation” and “can even increase your energy level.” It’s cliched but true that when you’re in a bad mood, smiling can make you feel a little better. And if you have to make a bunch of unpleasant phone calls, this may be the pick-me-up you need. Another tip from Davis: “think of the name of a person that you most enjoy being with.” Think of that person’s name before you speak and “you will be amazed at the amount of inflection, at the amount of authenticity, at the amount of personality and/or charisma that might come through on the other end of that phone.”

6. If you need to, jot down notes beforehand.

If you’re especially nervous about a call, it’s totally fine to make yourself a cheat-sheet. Says Pachter,

The beauty of a phone call [...] is that people don’t see you, so you can have notes in front of you. Now you don’t want to sit there and read your script when you’re talking into a phone, but it can really help keep your thoughts together. And if you think it’s going to be a difficult call, you can anticipate ahead of time what the person is going to say, and you can have your response ready for you. So you can really prepare, and for people that are shy that’s really helpful.

7. Leave brief voicemails — but know they might be ignored.

Pachter’s advice for voicemail:

If you do leave a message, keep it short and sweet. You don’t want to ramble. It’s good to leave your number just in case it’s not a cell phone that you’re leaving the message on, because then they don’t have to look it up. [...] Give the reason for the call, and again speak clearly and slowly so people can understand you.

But even if you do everything right, the reality is your contact might not listen to the message. Listening to voicemail is kind of a pain, and lots of people just call back without checking to see what was said. Pachter’s blog offers a few tips on dealing with this reality:

• Make sure you listen to any client’s, customer’s or boss’s message. You may learn some valuable information.

• Don’t inconvenience people. If you obtain the needed information from a message, you don’t need to interrupt the person with a call.

• If you didn’t listen to the message, let the person know.

• Don’t play games. One manager will tell the caller that he didn’t listen to his or her message when he did. He believes that some employees leave messages to avoid difficult conversations.

And if you leave short, to-the-point messages, you stand a better chance of having your recipient listen all the way through.

8. Follow the Golden Rule.

As in so many social situations, a big part of having a successful phone call is thinking about the other person. Says Davis,

“We tend not to put the shoe on the other foot. I think that there’s a dichotomy between when we’re the customer and we expect to be treated a certain way, and then we go to work the next day and become the service provider, and we have a tendency to treat our customers the very same way that we don’t like to be treated.”

This goes for any kind of phone call — if you appreciate when someone speaks clearly, listens well, and doesn’t sound like the world is ending, chances are your contact does too. And if you notice a behavior that drives you nuts — whether it’s leaving rambling messages, putting you on hold forever, or just garden-variety rudeness, try not to replicate it yourself. A little consideration can go a long way toward making phone calls less unpleasant for everyone.

Originally published on Jezebel. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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21 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    Gahh I hate talking on the phone so much! I walk circles around my apartment whenever I have to talk to someone – I literally have to be in perpetual motion to get through it.

    And don’t even get me started on voicemails. Seriously I practically have a panic attack trying to sound normal on a recording. Also I’ve been known to forget to leave my name, and then I have to call back and leave a second message that just says, “Oh yeah..um that was Julie.”

    What I mean to say is thank you for this!

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    I really like talking on the phone… to friends. I get ridiculous if I have to call in some sort of a business-y way, and always need to talk myself up so much, practise, and make notes.

    I always do the smiling thing, even when I talk to friends. It makes such a difference.

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    I SOOOO wish I could forward this to my father….except I’m not speaking to him and it wouldn’t do any good anyway since he is the KING OF THE WORLD (in his warped mind) and can do nothing wrong.

    For instance – HE will call ME and then he’ll say “hold on” and pick up his other line or his house phone and have a whole 5 minute conversation before coming back to me. If I dare to hang up because I have something to do he’ll call me back and tell I was rude for hanging up on him. EXCUSE ME? YOU called ME and then put ME on hold!!

    OR he’ll call me say two words and then say “I have to call you back” click!

    OR he’ll leave a voice mail and berate me for not answering my phone because he knows I have it on me at all times and, damn it, I should answer when he calls because he is KING OF THE WORLD.

    Yeah – these are just some of the reasons we are not talking! *sigh* but I REALLY want to forward this to him so he’ll learn proper phone etiquette! What’s sad is that he is a VERY successful business man so either A) He doesn’t do this to clients or B) He does but his clients have recognized him as KING OF THE WORLD so put up with his crappy phone behavior. I go with A though which means he treats his clients better than his family and that is REALLY sad! :(

  4. Thumb up 0

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    If you have a job that requires you to answer phones and talk to people a lot, do NOT mix up what you mean to say via text to a friend and instead say it as you answer the phone.

    This summer instead of answering the phone with a formal greeting as I should have I answered it “YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!!!”… what I meant to text to someone. Needless to say there was no one on the other end when I was finally able to get the formal greeting out through lots of laughter. At least my manager thought it was hilarious!

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      Also – do not use text speak in professional phone calls either! I’ve said “IDK” instead “I don’t know” more times than I can count. Fortunately, so far at least, all that have been subjected to this have at least laughed..after a brief shocked silence that is! LOL!

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    If I am calling someone I don’t know very well or someone for work, I write out a voicemail in case they don’t answer. It’s easy to sound like a rambling confused retard when leaving voicemail and there are those times you forget to say something you intended to say. I feel, better safe than sorry. But in general, I try to do everything through email, especially for work.

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    If you need to leave your phone number for someone always repeat it! That way people don’t have to replay your message just to get the number. And say the callers name on the message at least twice, especially when leaving a message for someone you don’t know…. Unless you don’t know how to pronounce their name….this happens to me ALL the time!!! Grrrr!

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    My family drives me absolutely insane with the phone. My aunts are HORRIBLE. If they call you and you don’t answer immediately, they panic. Like, they’re convinced there’s been some horrible catastrophe and you’re laying bleeding on your kitchen floor. And they will continue to call back every five minutes until you pick up the damn phone. The thing is, for YEARS now (until March of this year, anyway) my mother and I took care of my grandmother and we couldn’t get to the phone a lot of the time. My grandmother is mostly blind and has severe dementia and a few other health issues, so she was very care-intensive and it was very time consuming. And it was also very stressful, so listening to the goddamn phone ring and ring and ring and ring and ring was like nails on a chalkboard when you’re trying to clean up yet another bathroom accident while dodging punches from the confused, crazy old lady.

    Plus, my aunts and my sister both leave EPIC answering machine messages. They’ll just talk and talk until the machine cuts them off. And then they’ll call back and finish their message. The thing is, our machine doesn’t cut you off for a good 10 minutes! One time, my sister left three of those messages in a row. That dizzy bitch just talked to herself for a half an hour! WTF?

    If you’re not Margaret Cho’s mother, I don’t want you leaving novel-length messages on my machine.

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    I do the notetaking thing liek whoa. It saves my sanity on a regular basis.

    And on the converse to not answering phone calls with emails… I freaking *hate* it when people answer emails with phone calls! Especially if it’s something quick – I can understand it if you need a bit of clarification on something so you’re not going back and forth, but if it’s something that has a short and simple answer? Just type it into the little typey box and click send! -_-

    (Of course, now that my office has decided that all of its problems can be solved by calling people instead of emailing… siiiiiiiigggggggghhhhhhhhhh)

  9. Thumb up 0

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    With family and close friends I can talk for hours on the phone, and frequently do, but generally with everyone else I tend to keep it short.

    The smiling thing I can relate to..my mother, in particular, has a sixth sense about these things…if I am not smiling while talking on the phone invariably she will ask “Lindy, is everything ok?” ughhhh

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    I feel sick when people call me. Most of the time I let it go to vmail to find out what they want and only call back if it sounds interesting. I think calling someone is quite an intrusive thing to do, actually. Sometimes if I’ve been having a text convo with someone and the details are getting a bit intricate I’ll just call them to confirm or something, but otherwise I’m all text. I’m constantly amazed at films where people call each other up after one or two dates and talk for hours. It’s weird as hell.

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    There are only a couple friends I can talk to on the phone. Talking to my family and other friends is just awkward.
    Also I really hate it when people you talk to on the phone smoke. Seriously, I CAN TELL YOU’RE SMOKING!

  12. Thumb up 0

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    Talking on the phone makes me nervous. Actually, talking to people in general (strangers and people I don’t know very well, mostly) makes me nervous. But the phone is the worst.

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    I don’t really like talking on the phone either, but I do know how to talk on the phone. Do other people actually not know how to talk on the phone? Even if they don’t do it on a regular basis? I think this says something about the lost art of actual conversation and our ability to interact with other human beings without all the barriers of the latest technology.

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      Wouldn’t interacting without technology be talking in person and not over the phone? Phone is worse than in person for me just because of how I process information. I can have an actual conversation on the phone for about five minutes, any longer and I won’t know what to say anymore and my mind will have wandered and I won’t be able to keep up with what they’re saying (I can’t stay focused if I have to just listen, I’m a very visual person and need something that I can look at that is related to the conversation (which is why I do better with business conversations, they’re generally shorter and I have notes so I have something to keep me tethered to the conversation)).

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    Maybe it’s just because we’re on the internet, and the internet attracts introverted types, but really guys? You can’t talk on the phone? What about to your love interest? What a strange symptom of the times and technology. This has to be a more recent development of the past few years.

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