Mastering The Lost Art Of Actually Talking On The Phone


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.”

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.

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.

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.

Need help with a sticky social situation?
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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

The Jerk with the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us
Jeannie Davis [Official Site]
Beyond “Hello”: A Practical Guide For Excellent Telephone Communication And Quality Customer Service

Image via WitR/

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