How to: Talk on the Phone in English

Unless you live in the past, under a rock in Outer Mongolia, or have a serious fear of technology, you will have used a telephone before.

The first telephone call was made in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, but at the time there were not many people to ring. Today though, in countries all around the world, almost everyone has a telephone. This means that when learning how to speak English, knowing how to correctly speak to people on the phone is an essential skill.

Talking on the phone in English, however, can be much more difficult than face-to-face conversation; below are some tips to help you out:

Step by Step Guide:

  • Begin any call with a greeting, and introduce yourself (‘Good morning, it is Lily calling’).
  • Once introductions are complete, state your purpose and, if the person who answers the call is not who you are  ringing to speak to, politely ask for the person you want (e.g. ‘I am ringing about…’; ‘Could I please speak to...’).
  • When receiving a call where the purpose is not clear, make sure your inquiries are made courteously (e.g. ‘What can I help you with?’). If uninterested, decline politely before ending the call (e.g. ‘I’m sorry, but I am not interested, thank you’).
  • To end a call, sign off with ‘goodbye’ and perhaps an appropriate pleasantry (e.g. ‘It was a pleasure talking to you’).
  • You may also here wish to confirm any plans made or information exchanged (e.g. ‘I will see you at your office on Wednesday at 3 pm for the interview’).
  • If the appropriate person is not available then leave/take a message. To do this, follow the same rules as above, ensuring you leave/take any necessary contact details (e.g. ‘Hello, it’s Frank…no, sorry, Thomas is not here at the moment, but if you leave your name and number I will tell him to call you back’).

Phone Vocabulary:

Formal/Informal Vocabulary:

When talking on the telephone, it is important to use the correct level of formality.

If talking to someone you are close to, such as a friend or a sibling, you may want to tell a silly joke or use informal language, such as using ‘hey’ as a greeting.

However it can be rude and/or unprofessional to be too informal when talking to certain people. (For example, current or potential future employers.) Generally speaking, use a polite greeting, refer to them as ‘Mr …’; ‘Mrs …’, or 'Miss...' and be courteous in your tone and choice of language: use ‘can’, ‘may’, ‘would’ and ‘could’.

Difficult Vocabulary:

Some phrases commonly used on the telephone can be confusing.  Some of these are explained below:

  • ‘This is he/she’: this is the person you are asking for.
  • ‘I didn't catch that’: I didn't hear that.
  • ‘Give me a buzz later’: ring me later.
  • ‘Please hold’: I have to leave the call for a moment, please stay on the phone.
  • ‘Hang on’: wait for a moment.
  • ‘Hang up’: end the telephone call.

General Tips:

  1. Prepare what you’re going to say before the call to organize your ideas and provide support for you if you get confused.
  2. Always remain polite and use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
  3. Speak slowly and clearly in plain English.
  4. If you are having trouble understanding the person on the phone, you can explain that you are still learning English. Politely ask them to please speak more slowly or to repeat what they said.

Talk on the Phone in English

Practice both social and formal phone conversations in English with a friend, using this post as a guide. In no time you will be comfortable and relaxed on the telephone no matter who you are talking to!

Vocabulary Used:

Courteously: in a polite manner.

Pleasantry: a polite social remark.

Formality: stiffness of behavior or style.

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