Being polite on the phone - a step by step guide

Summary: How to make and answer phone calls formally, including formal telephoning phrases and tips on being polite on the phone.

There are big differences between formal and informal English phone calls, but textbooks often mix the two up, for example including “hang on” in situations where much more polite language is needed. As most phone calls are made in people’s jobs, this article gives tips on the more formal kinds of calls, running through a call step by step from answering the phone to say goodbye at the end. There are also articles on this site on the dos and don’ts of being polite in phone calls, making and teaching formal and informal telephoning, and how to be friendly on the phone. Practice activities for all of this language are available at and


Answering the phone politely

Polite ways to answer the phone in business include:

  • “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening. ABC Corp. HR Department. Alex Case speaking. How can I help you?”
  • “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening. ABC Corp. HR Department. Alex Case speaking. How may I help you?”
  • “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening. ABC Corp. HR Department. Alex Case speaking. How may I be of assistance?”
  • “Good morning/ afternoon/ evening. ABC Corp. HR Department. Alex Case speaking. How may I direct your call?”

The one with “How may I help you?” is probably most common, with “can” also common but not considered polite by some people. “How may I be of assistance?” is too formal for most situations, and “How may I direct your call? is only for people whose only job it is to transfer calls elsewhere, never dealing with the caller themselves (which is rare nowadays).

You may also hear “Good morning. Thank you for calling ABC Corp. Alex Case speaking. How may I help you?”, which seems more polite but is missing the important information of which part of the company they the caller got through to, and would be too long if we added much more information. It is most common when phoning customer service hotlines.

For home phones, it’s usual to answer with just “Hello?” This can be made more polite with the right intonation/ tone of voice, with bad intonation being the impatient shout of important businessmen in movies. Those characters often just bellow “Yes?” in the same way, but this is never a good way to answer the phone in real life. Some people answer with the home phone number as in “(Hello?) 098 776 1212”, but other forms you may hear in movies like “(family name) residence” are very old fashioned and only used as a joke nowadays. Translations from other languages like “Hello? Who’s speaking?” and “Speak to me” usually seem rude in English.


Politely checking and giving names and the reason for the call

If the receiver doesn’t give their name, the caller can ask “Sorry, who am I speaking to, please?” (not “Who are you?”). The yes/ no question to check the name of the receiver is “Is that Mr Case?” (not “Are you Mr Case?”, as we would ask face to face).

In many languages, it is always considered necessary for the caller to give their name in their first line in the conversation in order to be polite. However, this is not always necessary in English when the caller and receiver don’t know each other. In fact, it’s sometimes inconvenient if you tell me your name at the beginning and then I have to ask you to repeat it when it is really needed later to take a message. The caller can therefore sometimes start without giving their name, as in:

  • “Good morning. Could I speak to…, please?”
  • “Good afternoon. I’m calling about the trade fair…”

If the information might be relevant to the receiver, phrases like “My name is… I’m calling from… Inc.” or “This is … from… Ltd.” can be added after “Good…” “This is…” means that the receiver knows the caller, perhaps because they have spoken on the phone before. With friends and colleagues, after “This is Alex” we would then switch to friendlier language and small talk with phrases like “Hi Alex. How’s it going?” However, in more formal situations like a customer who we’ve only spoken to once before, none of this chitchat is suitable. Instead, we should use their name and get straight down to business with a phrase like:

  • “Good morning, Mr Case. How may I help you (today)?”
  • “Good morning, Mr Case. Thank you for calling me back.”
  • “Good morning, Mr Case. Thank you for your email earlier.”

There are super-formal ways of answering “How may I help you?” like “I am calling” with the  “concerning/ regarding/ in order to…” that we use in formal emails, but these are usually too formal or old-fashioned for speaking. Therefore, even formal phone calls usually include the standard phrases:

  • “I’m calling about/ to/ because…”

“I’m phoning…” seems slightly less formal, and “I’m ringing…” is quite casual.

Before giving the reason for calling, the caller could apologise with something like:

  • “I’m sorry to phone so early in the morning (but…)”
  • “I’m sorry that it took me so long to get back to you (but…)”
  • “I’m sorry to call again so soon (but…)”
  • “I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your email about…”
  • “I’m sorry to trouble you again (but…)”
  • “I’m sorry to phone so late in the evening/ at lunchtime/ last thing on Friday…”
  • “I’m sorry that I didn’t have more time to speak earlier.”

Apologies should only be used when those things are true and really worth apologising for, so we never say “Sorry to phone you when you are so busy/ for interrupting/ to bother you/ to disturb you”, because we can never know for sure that those things are true.

Also not as common as you might think before getting down to business is checking the timing of your call with:

  • “So, do you have time to talk?”
  • “Sorry, is this a good time?”


Politely getting through and putting people through (including politely asking people to wait)

If you need to speak to someone else, the options are:

  • “Could I speak to…?”/ “May I speak with…?”
  • “Could you put me through to…?”
  • “Could you connect me to…?”
  • “I (really) need to speak to…”

The first of those is the politest because it has no “you” and so doesn’t emphasise that the receiver has to do something. “I (really) need to speak to…” is quite forceful but might be useful in emergencies and/ or if previous attempts to get through to someone have been unsuccessful. “I’d like to speak to…” is not as polite as “Could…?” but is softer than “I need to…” “Is Alex there/ around?” is very casual, and even the more formal version “Is Alex Case available?” seems less formal than the “Could…?” versions above. “Please plus verb” sentences like “Please put me through to/ connect me to…” are not suitable for any calls, as they are commands/ orders instead of requests.

Positive answers should start with “Of course”, as in:

  • “Of course. Please hold the line and I’ll connect you.”
  • “Of course. Just a moment. I’ll check if he’s available.”
  • “Of course. Just a moment while I transfer your call.”

“Certainly” is also possible, but seems too formal for most situations. “Sure” is casual and so not polite enough in these kinds of situations.

Note the language for asking people to wait, which is usually “Just a moment”. “Just a minute” is also okay but “Just a second”, “Just a mo’” and “Just a sec’” are more casual.

“Please + imperative” in “Please hold (the line) (and/ while)…” is okay in this case (unlike in the common mistake “Please put me through to…” X mentioned above). This is because “Please hold (…)” is either an offer like “Please go ahead” (as we are helping the other person), or instructions for using the system (like “Please leave a message after the tone”). “Please wait” is almost always rude in English, and “Please hold on” has a phrasal verb (which is generally casual) and means “wait” generally, not specifically to hold the line.

We might sometimes ask about the call or caller before transferring their call, as in:

  • “Of course. Could I ask what it is concerning?”
  • “Who’s calling, please?/ Could I check who’s calling?”

“What’s it about?” is always too direct and therefore rude. There is also a danger of them being offended if you ask for their name and then say that the person they want to speak to is not available. Good advice is therefore not to ask these questions unless it is absolutely necessary (and it rarely is).


Polite negative answers to speak to someone on the phone

Negative answers to requests to speak to someone should include a giving bad news starter and very detailed reasons as in:

  • “I’m afraid he’s in a meeting with a client all afternoon.”
  • “I’m sorry but he’s in America on a business trip.”
  • “I’m sorry, he’s not at his desk.”
  • “I’m afraid he’s out of the office at the moment, but he should be back soon.”
  • “I’m sorry, he’s on another line. Would you like to hold?”

More general excuses like “He’s not here” and “He’s not available” are very rude as it seems like you can’t be bothered to explain or are making up an untrue reason. In business, you should also try to avoid unprofessional sounding reasons, for example saying “not in the office today” or “out of the country” instead of “on holiday”.


Polite leaving and taking messages on the phone

If someone is not available, the next step is usually offering to take a message, with phrases like:

  • “Would you like to leave a message?”
  • “If I can take your name and number, I’ll ask him to call you back as soon as he gets to the office.”
  • “Shall I ask her to call you back?”

If the receiver doesn’t offer, the caller can ask with:

  • “Could I leave a message?”
  • “Could you (possibly) take a message?”
  • “Could you tell him that I called?”
  • “Could you ask him to call me back?”

Again, commands like “Please ask him to call me back” are not suitable. “Could you tell him to…?” also means “Could you command him to…?” and so should be replaced with “Could you ask him to…?” or “Could you tell him that…?”

When the message is being dictated, the receiver should be careful to use polite checking/ clarifying phrases, usually meaning requests like:

  • “Sorry, could you say that again a little more slowly?”
  • “Sorry, could you spell your family name?”
  • “Sorry, could I check just one thing?”

Note the use of phrases to make things sound small like “a little” and “just”.

Questions about basic information are also acceptable, as in:

  • “Sorry, how do you spell…?”
  • “Sorry, do I need any punctuation in…?”
  • “Sorry, did you say… or…?”

When the message is completed, that stage can finish with:

  • “Okay, I’ll make sure that she gets your message.”
  • “Okay, got it now, thanks. I’ll pass your message onto her. I’m sure she will get back to you soon.”

Apart from leaving messages, other acceptable reactions to someone not being there include:

  • “No, that’s okay, thanks. I’ll just call again later.”
  • “Oh, I really need to speak to him quite urgently. Could you possibly give me his mobile number?”
  • “Could you tell me when she will be back?/ Do you know when she might be back?”
  • “Is there anyone else I can speak to (about…)?”
  • “Can I help you at all?”/ “Perhaps I can help.”

Note the use of “Could you possibly…?”, which is more polite than just “Could you…?” and so suitable for a bigger than usual request.


Polite language in the body of phone calls

If you actually get to speak to the person you want to, you’ll need to give the reason for calling (see above) and then get to the body of the call. The language in the body will be the same as speaking face to face, the body of an email etc, rather than specific telephoning language. Common functions and phrases in the body of a formal call include:

  • Making arrangements (“I’d like to meet… if that is convenient with you”, etc)
  • Enquiries (“Could you possibly tell me…?”, “I was wondering…”, etc)
  • Ordering and booking (“Is… available/ still available?”, “I had a couple of questions before I order…”, “I’d like to reserve…”)
  • Reporting problems and complaining (“There seems to be some kind of a problem with…”, “Unfortunately, we can’t get… to work”, “I’m not very happy with…”, etc)
  • Dealing with problems and complaints (“I regret to inform you that…”, “Please accept my apologies for…”, etc)
  • Checking progress/ Chasing things up (“How are we getting on with…?”, “I just need to check…”,

Note the use of embedded questions/ indirect questions like “Could you possibly tell me…?”, words to make things seem small like “just”, “we” instead of “you” to be more indirect, and other soft indirect language like “seems to…” and “some kind of”.


Politely ending phone calls

Politely checking that and saying that the call has finished

When the body is completely dealt with, it is time to smoothly (not suddenly) end the call. In business phone calls, this can almost always be done by checking if the other person has finished, with phrases like:

  • “Okay, (as I said, I’ll email you written confirmation by the end of business today.) Can I help you with anything else?”
  • “So, is there anything else that I can help you with?”

“Is that it?”, “Is that all?” and “Anything else?” sound impatient and are almost impossible to ask another question after, so are rarely acceptable on the phone.

Standard answers to “Can I help you with anything else?” are:

  • “No, that’s all (for now), thanks.”
  • “No, I think you’ve answered all my questions, thanks.”

The first of those is the most general and therefore the most common. “No, that’s it for now” is quite casual.

If that’s not all, longer phrases are needed to almost be apologetic about the fact that you are not finished, such as:

  • “Actually, there was just one more thing.”
  • “Actually, I did have one or two more questions.”
  • “Sorry, just one more thing before you go.”

After answering those questions, the receiver can just ask “So, can I help you with anything else?” again. They should be careful not to change the stress and intonation of this phrase, as variations like “So, can I help you with anything ELSE?” sound like you’re emphasising how many things you have already helped the caller with.

The caller can do something similar, with phrases like:

  • “So, I think that’s all for now, thanks.”
  • “So, I think that has answered all my questions, thanks.”
  • “Great. That’s been really helpful, thanks.”

At the end of longer, less focused calls, either person might need to give a reason for ending the call. The longest and therefore probably politest such phrases consist of something nice about the conversation, then a reason for ending it, and finally mention of future contact, as in:

  • “Well, this has been really useful, but I have a meeting in ten minutes, so I’ll email you later.”
  • “So, it’s been great to catch up, but I have someone on another line, so speak to you again soon.”

Although it’s sometimes okay and even necessary to add one final point with phrases like “Sorry, before you go, just one more little thing”, the usual replies are:

  • “Of course. No problem. I’ll let you get on, then.”
  • “Me too, actually. Speak to you again soon, then.”


Politely thanking at the end of calls

Having smoothly reached the end by checking if they have finished, giving reasons for ending, etc, the caller and receiver should then be ready for the final thanking, which from the receiver is usually:

  • “(If you need any more help, please call again). Thank you for your call/ for calling.”

There are also similar phrases for more specific situations like:

  • “Thanks again for letting us know.”
  • “Thanks (again) for your understanding/ your patience.”
  • “Sorry I couldn’t be more help.”
  • “Once again, please accept our apologies for…”

Mentioning future contact is commonly combined with thanking, as in:

  • “Thank you for your interest in ABC Limited. I look forward to hearing from you again.”
  • “I look forward to seeing you next week. Thank you for your call.”

The caller also has one or two common thanking phrases, some more specific ones, and a couple of possible apologies:

  • “Thanks for your help.”
  • “Thanks for all your help.”
  • “Thanks.”
  • “Thanks anyway.”
  • “Sorry to trouble you/ to have troubled you.”

You should usually thank the receiver for their help, even if they only answered one question or took a short message. However, this can sound sarcastic if they weren’t able to help at all, in which case just “Thanks” is better. “Thanks anyway” is another way of responding when they weren’t able to help, but only for a very short phone call like “Can I speak to John Smith? I’m an old school friend of his” “I’m afraid he doesn’t work here anymore” “Okay, thanks anyway. Goodbye”. “Thank for in advance” should be avoided at the end of phone calls (unlike emails), as it sounds like “Don’t forget (the thing I asked you to do)!” “Thank you for your cooperation” is never suitable for phone calls (and rarely for emails either).


Formal parting greetings in phone calls

The formal final parting greeting is “Goodbye”, but “Bye” is usually okay as well. “See you” is informal.  

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