Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How to talk on the telephone

One of the many ironies of first-world life: as more and more people carry mobile phones with them at all times, fewer and fewer of them seem to have been taught the basics of how to use them properly. They do not grasp, let alone practice, even the most basic telephone etiquette. The other day I took a call from a young man (I'd guess he was in his late teens or early twenties) who, unless he was raised in a cave somewhere, had probably been using phones most of his life. He failed to give his name or the name of the organization he represented, "umm"ed and "uh"ed his way through most of the conversation, and I had to use my phenomenal psychic powers to determine the point of his call, since he failed to articulate it. Yes, I realize a growing number of people have telephobia and try to avoid making or taking phone calls at any cost, but face it: you can't go through life cowering like a frightened fluffy bunny behind a wall of text.

So: time to tackle the art of the phone call.

You will need:
  1. A working telephone.
  2. The ability to speak and listen.
  3. The phone number of a person you want to call, or an incoming call to deal with.
  4. A pen or pencil and piece of paper (optional, but very useful).
Some general rules for both outgoing and incoming calls:

Practice your phone speech. A good telephone conversation has a few things in common with good public speaking: have something specific to say, maintain appropriate volume, articulate your words properly, and keep a medium pace. Especially if you're nervous, you should practice what you plan to say -- not too loud, not too soft, well enunciated -- and try to slow down, since most people tend to chatter like a caffeinated squirrel when they're scared.

Don't assume you know who's on the other end. Caller ID is a false friend. You can't assume it's your brother on the line just because you see his name and number pop up on the screen; it could be anybody from your sister-in-law to your three-year-old nephew to some raving psycho who found your brother's phone on the bus. Likewise, don't assume you recognize a familiar voice and start blathering away about the latest chapter in your epic battle with irritable bowel syndrome; many people have similar phone voices. (I can't tell you how many times I've been mistaken for my mother or sisters on the phone. Sometimes I have utilized this confusion for my own Nefarious Purposes, so be warned.)

Don't say anything aloud you don't want people to hear. Period. If anything, the Mute button is even more treacherous than Caller ID. You can't trust it to keep your nose clean. It's better to assume, from the moment you pick up the phone to the moment you end the call, that everything you say will be live and audible. This extends to personal and background noises, too, so don't conduct phone calls in a steel foundry or construction area, don't have conversations of a private nature while in a public place, and for the love of all that's holy, don't talk on the phone while you're trying to eat or poop. Just... no.

If you're on a cell phone, don't talk and drive at once. It's become illegal in many states to talk while driving, as most people can't timeslice their focus enough to do both these things well simultaneously. If you must take a call while in the car, at least pull over to do it. And if it's legal to talk while driving in your state, use a hands-free phone, won't you?

Making a call

Determine a clear objective. You probably have a few friends whom you can call up and just ramble about any old thing that comes into your head. For everyone else, have a specific reason to call -- it's polite not to take up too much of their time with chitchat. If you're nervous or forgetful, write down the reason why you're calling on a piece of paper so you can remember to get to the point.

Dial carefully. This is pretty self-evident -- as amusing as some wrong numbers can be, I assume you actually want to talk to a specific person.

Give your own name and refer to the person you want to speak to by first and last name, if you know it. When someone answers the phone, you should say, "Hello, this is [Joe Doakes, or whatever your name happens to be]. May I speak to [Jane Doe... or whoever], please?" This covers a few bases at once: it lets the caller know who you are, it tells the caller who you want to speak to, and it clears up any misconceptions about whether or not you called the right number. (Why first AND last name, if possible? Because it specifically identifies the person you intended to call. If you just ask to speak to "Ms. Jernigan" and there are five women at that number with that last name, you could end up talking to any one of them, or all five in turn. It's like Russian roulette!)

Once you have the right person on the line, give your name again and start pleasantly. Eventually someone will come to the phone. At that point you should say, "[Jane/Mrs. Doe/whoever]?" and check for verification like "yes?". Then you identify yourself again: "This is [Joe Doakes/your name here]," and if you're calling on behalf of a company or organization, you add, "calling for [What On Earth Productions/Disney Studios/Industrial Light and Magic/whatev]." If you think this person might have trouble placing you, give a memory-jogger: "We met the other day in an Underwater Basketweaving seminar" or "I'm the guy who keeps falling asleep in Chemistry class and setting his T-shirt on fire."  Then add a polite pleasantry: "How are you?" is the industry standard. Listen and reply to the response appropriately. Most people will say, "Fine," but if the response is anything less than positive, it's appropriate to express sympathy: "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

Get to the objective. After identifying who you are and being pleasant, you should get right to the reason why you called. For example, if you're talking to your ophthalmologist's secretary: "I'm calling to make an eye appointment for Tuesday, if possible. What times are available?" Or, if you're asking someone on a date: "I'm calling because Arsenic and Old Lace is playing at the Capitol this weekend and I was wondering if you'd like to go see it with me." (Hint: it's probably not appropriate to ask someone out on a date right then if the answer to "How are you?" is gushing sobs, followed by "My cat just got run over." Timing is everything.) Continue with the details of the objective, writing down appointment days and dates, determining when and where you'll meet for an evening out, etc.

Bring it to a graceful end. Once you've achieved the objective of your call, it's best to bring the conversation to a gentle close. You should reiterate the information you've received, thank the person and give some word of farewell. Example: "So I'm seeing Dr. Smith this Tuesday at 4 p.m., is that correct?" [Yes.] "All right, thank you very much for your help. Goodbye." Or, in the case of the date: "All right, so I'm picking you up at 6:30 on Saturday. Great, thanks! I'll see you then. Bye."

Hang up. Congratulations, you did it!

Taking a call

Find out (politely) who is on the line. Sometimes you'll know right away who's calling you because that person practices good phone etiquette, but in case he or she doesn't read this blog, you may need to ask. Blurting out "Who is this?" will get you the information you want, but it's about as delicate as cutting paper with a chainsaw. "May I ask who's calling, please?" is more genteel. (If it's someone whose voice you should have known, you can always say, legitimately, that you didn't recognize his voice on the phone. As mentioned, many people have similar phone voices.)

Pay attention to the flow of conversation. OK, I'll 'fess up... sometimes, when a conversation wanders far and wide, so does my brain. This is widely considered rude behavior, but there are a few things you can do to avoid it. For one thing, if you know you're not a good multitasker on the phone, try not to distract yourself with activities that require the language-processing part of your noggin -- you won't be able to keep track of what's being said and you'll end up giving some random, inappropriate response because you weren't really listening. If you aren't doing something that requires your vision, you can sometimes concentrate better on the conversation with your eyes closed. And if you're Super ADD Chick and this conversation is really vital, grab that pen and piece of paper and take notes as you go.

If things are getting long, (gently) steer the caller toward a close. We all know somebody -- it might be a relative, it might be a friend, it might even be a stranger with a wrong number -- who is constitutionally incapable of conducting a phone call for less than 20 minutes. In such a situation, particularly if you're pressed for time, you may steer the caller toward the exit, such as: "Well, Aunt Vickie, it's been lovely to hear a blow-by-blow of your surgery, but I'm afraid it's time for me to go." This farewell accomplishes two things: it usually brings the Neverending Story to a close, and it sometimes manages to pop free from the recesses of the caller's head the reason why he/she called you in the first place.

(NOTE: Etiquette dictates that if you are stuck in an interminable conversation, you are NOT allowed to lie about going through a tunnel, running out of juice on your cell phone, or otherwise faking up an excuse to hang up on the caller. However, if you really do have bad enough reception that you lose the call, you are allowed the right not to call back. So if you can't end a call and you're contemplating gnawing off your own leg to escape, just set your phone to hands-free mode, get in your car and drive toward the nearest tunnel...)

If you're nervous about phone conversations, remember: like everything else, they become easier the more often you practice. Ask people you know and trust to field your first few calls and give you pointers about how well you did. Come on, you can do this! I have faith in you! And so would Alexander Graham Bell, or he wouldn't have invented this chatty contraption in the first place.