Cultural differences in telephoning
Summary: Cultural variations in making phone calls from country to country, including differences in starting calls, ending calls, taking messages, etc.
Like many people, I particularly hate making phone calls in another language. One major reason is the impossibility of using body language when communication becomes difficult, but cultural differences are also a significant problem. There are many differences in telephoning from language to language, and sometimes from place to place and even generation to generation among speakers of the same language. There are differences in:
- Answering the phone
- Giving and asking for names
- Small talk
- Being polite at the beginning of a call
- Getting down to business
- Asking to speak to someone
- Requests and commands
- Asking to someone to wait
- Silence and active listening
- Leaving and taking messages/ Checking and clarifying
- Ending calls
This article lists and explains such differences in order to help with international communication, as a useful introduction to cultural differences more generally – or just for the pure interest of seeing how much variety there is in how people make calls. There will also be a more specific article on differences between British and American phone calls available on this site from November 2016, and there is an e-book with practice of all the aspects above in English available here:
One of the big general variations in telephoning is how predictable and standardised calls tend to be, so the statements about some of the countries below are not necessarily true about all calls.
Cultural differences in answering the phone
English speakers are often not aware that the word “Hello” became a greeting on the phone before it was used in that way face to face, and so are pleasantly surprised by how common variations like the French “Allo” are when answering the phone internationally. There are also some countries where words with the same original meaning as “Hello” to get someone’s attention are used, e.g. “Moshi moshi” in Japanese and “Yoboseyo” in Korean. However, this way of answering the phone is far from universal. In fact, there are at least 50 ways to answer the phone, listed in an article with that name here:
When answering the phone, as with the other stages of a call, cultural differences can be divided into four groups:
- Things said in some places which are not said in others
- Things which are rude in some places and okay in others
- Things which are more common in some places than others
- The same things said in a different order
Things which are said in some countries which aren’t used to answer the phone in English include:
- “Yes? (What is it?)” (like responding to someone calling to get your attention, e.g. “Efendim” in Turkish)
- “Hi” (e.g. “Oi” in Brazilian Portuguese)
- “Peace” (“Shalom” in Hebrew, though it more means “Hello”)
- “I am (here)” (“Estou” in Portuguese)
- “(I’m) listening” (e.g. “Klausau” in Lithuanian)
- “(Yes), please go ahead” (e.g. “Prosim” in Slovak)
- “Who’s on the line?” (e.g. "Qui est a l"appareil?" in French)
- “Who’s speaking? (e.g. “Chi parla ?” in Italian)
- “Please” for “Who’s speaking, please?” (e.g. “Parakalo” in Greek)
- “Ready!” (“Pronto” in Italian)
- “Speak (to me)” (e.g. “Diga(me)” in Spanish, really meaning “Go ahead”)
- “Well”/ “So?” (“Bueno” in Mexican Spanish, which more literally means “Good”)
- “At…” (e.g. “Bei Schmidt”, meaning “At the Schmidt’s” when you answer someone else’s phone in German)
Note that in many of the places above versions of “Hello” can also be used, and is sometimes more common than the more interesting differences above.
You might occasionally hear people, especially bosses, answer the phone with “Yes?” in Hollywood movies, but in reality this is very rude in English, meaning something like “Yes, why are you disturbing me?” This caveat is true in many other languages too, but the level of informality varies from place to place and in some it seems to be fine, e.g. answering the phone with “Da?” in Romanian.
In business, the standard way of answering the phone in English is with some kind of description of who you are and then an offer of help, such as “Good morning. ABC Corp. R&D department. Server section. (This is) Alex Case speaking. How can I help you?” This is fairly standard in other languages too, with the main variations being normal length, what order those thing are given in, and the phrases used. For example, in French the company name, own name and greeting are given in that order, in Dutch people usually say “Met (name)”, meaning “With (name)”, from “You are speaking with (name)”, and in French you say “Can I help you?” (which doesn’t seem logical to English speakers given that the answer “No” is impossible).
Although both the caller and the receiver can say “This is Alex Case speaking” in English phrases for answering the phone at work, it is more common for the caller to say “This is Alex Case” and the receiver to say “Alex Case speaking”. This distinction doesn’t exist in any other languages that I know, with something that means “This is Alex Case” or “I am Alex Case” being common for both people. We don’t say “Good morning. I am Alex Case. How can I help you?” in English.
Because of the ubiquity of mobile phones and the ability to see who is phoning you on the screen, it is increasingly common in most places to say “Hi (name)” if you know who is calling. However, the speed of this change in telephoning etiquette and how standard it has become seems to vary from place to place.
Cultural differences in giving and asking for names on the phone
In some cultures such as Japanese and Dutch it is considered impolite not to introduce yourself as soon as possible on the phone, including when the other person doesn’t really need that information. In contrast, in English we tend to only give our names if it is relevant or useful. For example, unless the person who answered the phone is someone who we know (well), we’d probably say “Good morning. (I’m phoning from ABC Ltd). Can I speak to Mr Harris in the Claims Department, please?” without giving our name. This is perhaps because if the receiver needs to pass our name onto Mr Harris they will need to go through the inconvenience and/ or embarrassment of asking us to repeat our name if we quickly spat it out earlier.
As shown in the section above, in some places it is fine to ask for someone’s name when you answer the phone, making giving your name straightaway obligatory.
The standard English phrase for checking who answered the phone is “Is that (name)?”, which sounds rather strange when translated word-for-word into other languages. In other places the phrase is often the much more standard-sounding “Are you (name)?”, which is rather impolite in English. In Dutch the equivalent phrase translates as “Am I speaking to…?”, which I think I have heard in old English movies but certainly isn’t standard nowadays. Personally I prefer to take the more indirect tactic of asking “Is John there?” or even “Can I speak to John?” even if I’m pretty sure I’m speaking to John.
If you have no idea who the receiver is, standard phrases in English are “Who am I speaking to?” (formal) and “Who’s that?” Japanese phrases are similar, but if you’re phoning someone’s home you should ask “Suzuki-san no otaku desu ka?”, which means “Is that the home of Mr Suzuki?” In other countries, it is more common to ask “Who’s speaking?” rather than “Who am I speaking to?”
Cultural differences in small talk on the phone
As is true about small talk more generally, the amount of chitchat that is necessary before you get to the topic of the phone call varies internationally from nothing to quite a lot, with many websites recommending five minutes of small talk in a Middle Eastern phone call. English phone calls lie somewhere in the middle, with one or two questions back and forth being normal. A basic “How are you?” (or usually a more casual version like “How’s it going?”/ “How are things?”/ “How’s life?”/ “How are things?”) is the absolute minimum if you know someone, even if you only know them through business.
Suitable topics for small talk on the phone also follow more general cultural norms, with weekends, your days and weeks, etc being good in English, with the British also being fond of talking about the weather but often avoiding more personal topics like family with business contacts.
Cultural differences in being polite at the beginning of the phone call
As in many languages, English phone calls can start with “Sorry…” or “Thanks…”. However, in English you have to be quite careful that the phrase matches the real situation or it can sound insincere or even quite weird. For example, a phrase meaning “Sorry to phone you at such as busy time” is absolutely standard and has no special meaning in Japanese business calls. However in English “Sorry to phone you at such as busy time” can only be used when you know for a fact that the other person in busy right now (which is quite rare, as you can’t see the other person through the phone). “Sorry for interrupting” and “Sorry to bother you” are never used on the phone in English.
In English you also have to make sure that the “long”, “late” and “early” in “Sorry it took me so long to get back to you” and “Sorry to phone you so early/ late” really mean something, because otherwise when you really need to apologise no one will think you really mean it!
The use of phrases like “Sorry to trouble you again but…” also varies. In English this is only suitable when followed by a request like “… can you spell the password you told me earlier? I tried it but I think I’m spelling it wrong”. In English the more general phrase is “Sorry, it’s Alex again. (When I phoned earlier I forgot to say/ I just realised that…)”
In Japanese business calls, it is very common to say “(Itsumo) o-sewa ni natte imasu”, which is both difficult to translate and very insincere sounding to an English speaking, being something like “Thanks for your kindness (always)”.
Cultural differences in getting down to business on the phone
English speakers tend to like very smooth transitions between stages of communication, and this is also true in phone calls. The most important part of transitioning smoothly is choosing the right moment to get down to business. This is usually when the other person answers your small talk question and doesn’t ask you one back. The smoothest way of doing this is to react to what the other person said and then check how you can help them (if you are the receiver) or mention the reason for your call, as in “I’m glad to hear that. So, what can I do for you today?” and “I envy you! Anyway, the reason I’m phoning is…” English speakers can often find transitions in phone calls in other languages, e.g. Japanese, quite sudden and therefore uncomfortable or even rude.
In some countries it is more common for the caller to get down to business and in other places it is the receiver, but in English a smooth transition is much more important than who finishes the small talk so it tends to be whoever has not just spoken.
Cultural differences in asking to speak to someone on the phone
Standard English phrases for asking to speak to someone else are all requests, as in “Can I speak to…?”, “Could you put me through to…?” and maybe “I’d like to speak to…” Stronger forms like “I need to speak to someone about…” tend to be saved for emergencies, and command/ orders like “Please connect me to…” and “I want to…” are rude. The only other common tactic is yes/ no questions about people’s availability such as “Is Mr Smith available?” and “Is John there?”
In many other languages there is no clear distinction between the forms for commands and requests, making something like “Please put me through to…” fine. Other variations which are not standard in English include “I’m calling for (name)” (e.g. in Dutch) and “(name) please” (e.g. in Japanese).
If the caller asks to speak to Alex Case and that is you, the standard responses in English are “Speaking” and, more casually, “That’s me”. Language learners often find the expression “Speaking” rather weird, with the German one (“Am Apparat” for “At the phone”) being perhaps more logical.
Cultural differences in the body of a phone call
Cultural differences in requests and commands on the phone
As mentioned above, English has very different phrases for requests and commands/ orders/ instructions, making “Can you take a message?” and “Please take a message” very different. “Please…” has the very forceful meaning of “I demand that take a message” and so is rarely or never suitable. In other languages, the language for requests and commands is the same, so you only have to be careful about your tone of voice.
There is also a slight difference between requests in British and American English, with “Can I speak to…?” generally not considered polite enough in the US, and “May I speak to…?” being too much in British English.
Cultural differences in asking to someone to wait on the phone
The point about requests and commands above is also relevant to the topic of asking someone to wait, as the standard phrase in most languages “Please wait” is a command in English and therefore not usually suitable. Instead, we usually say “Just a moment (while I…)”. The main exception is if we are using the telephone’s hold function, in which case we usually say “Please hold (the line)”. It is also possible to use a phrase meaning “Please don’t hang up” (e.g. in Spanish or French), but in English this is only used when there is a chance that the other person might actually hang up, e.g. when you have to rush out of the room during a teleconference.
Something like “Sorry to keep you waiting”/ “Sorry to have kept you waiting” is fairly standard in all the languages that I have studied, but as with the apologies at the beginning of the phone call above, in English it can seem insincere, pointless or even sarcastic if the other person has only been waiting for a few seconds. As you can perhaps imagine, apologising this way (“O-matase shimashita”) is very standard in Japanese, with anything over one minute generally getting “Sorry to keep you waiting for so long” (“Taihen matase shimashita”, literally “I kept you waiting a seriously long time”). Not only is this not necessary in English, the other person might even think you are being sarcastic!
Cultural differences in silence and active listening on the phone
Active listening is a very difficult skill for English language learners as native speakers tend to make a lot of noise while listening, and hate repeating what they say. English speakers might therefore encourage their partner to speak with “Really? Mmmm hmmm. No kidding. You’re right. Quite so. Yeah yeah yeah. Of course”. This is particularly important on the phone, where more than a few seconds of silence might cause the speaker to say “Hello? Hello? Are you still there?” In other languages more silent listening and/ or more repetition of words (or often just sounds like “Mmmmmm”) is more standard.
Silence is also relevant to transitions in the phone call such as the topics of getting down to business and ending the call. Even one second of silence is uncomfortable to an English speaker, so any silence at all is a sign that you should quickly move onto the next part of the call, e.g. from small talk to the reason for calling.
Cultural differences in leaving and taking messages on the phone/ Cultural differences in checking and clarifying on the phone
As is true more generally about giving reasons in English, in phone calls we tend to be very specific about why you can’t speak to someone, with phrases like “I’m afraid she’s away from her desk”, “She’s on another line” and “I’m sorry, he’s out the country this week” being standard. In other places more general phrases like “I’m afraid she’s not available” might be equally acceptable or more standard, but in English this sounds like a lie and/ or that you can’t be bothered giving me a more detailed reason.
It seems to be fairly standard that offering to take a message is more polite than waiting for someone to ask you to take a message, but the phrases can vary. In English there is a slight danger that “Shall I tell him you called?” can be taken to mean “I really don’t want to take a more detailed message”, so “Would you like to leave a message?” or “Can I take a message?” are more standard. In Japanese the phrase is more like “Would you like me to tell him something?”
When it comes to asking to leave a message, “Please…” (“Please take a message”) is again rude in English but fine in many other languages.
Requests and commands also come up in checking/ clarifying, with “Please repeat”, “Please speak a bit more loudly” and “Please spell that for me” all being rude in English but possible elsewhere. The Dutch phrase “Wat zegt du?” (“What did you say?”) sounds particularly rude in English, sometimes meaning I can’t believe my ears!
In English, standard checking/ clarifying phrases include “Can you repeat that?”, “Could you possibly speak a bit more loudly?” and “Could you spell that for me?” In English it is much more common for the listener to ask questions like this than for the speaker to ask questions checking comprehension. “(The spelling is a bit difficult). Shall I spell that for you?” is fine, but more general phrases like “Do you understand?” and “Shall I repeat that?” tend to come across as patronising in English. In other languages phrases like these are more acceptable, and are useful as the other person might otherwise be too embarrassed to interrupt and say that they aren’t following you.
When double checking the spelling of something, English has a standard system of “Alpha” for “A”, “Bravo” for “B”, etc. However, almost no one knows the whole thing and instead we usually make up sentences like “That’s A for apple, then D for dog”. This seems to be common internationally, but with how much people know and use the standard words for each letter varies from place to place.
There is also a difference in leaving phone numbers, with many languages such as German and French pairing the numbers up, making 457987 something like “forty five seven nine eight seven”. In English it is just “four five seven nine eight seven”.
Successful message taking is confirmed with something like “Understood” in various languages, such as “Capito” in Italian and “Wakarimashita” in Japanese. In English “Understood” has the very specific meaning of not being very happy about something but accepting the reasons for it. Instead, we usually say “(Okay.) Got it”.
Cultural differences in ending phone calls
As with getting down to business, English speakers tend to be very careful about making the end of the call quite smooth. This means that saying “Thanks for calling” suddenly is much worse in English than in many other languages. A smoother end to an English call can be achieved by the receiver confirming if the caller is finished (“So, can I help you with anything else?”, etc) or by the caller saying that they have finished (“Well, I think that’s all I need to know for now, thanks”, etc). It’s preferable if the caller ends the call, as they are the one that started it, and this seems to be fairly universal and especially important in some places.
English speakers tend to be in the middle of the range when it comes to small talk at the end of the phone call, with Spanish and Italian speakers sometimes turning the end of the call into a whole other conversation (or two). In English one question about the future like “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” can be nice, but isn’t usually necessary on the phone (unlike face to face, where it is pretty much always needed).
The other long part of Italian and Spanish conversations is how many times you might need to say something like “Well,…”, “So,…” and “Anyway,…” until the other person takes your hint and let’s you end the call. In other languages such as English, the other person should pick up on your first “Okay, well then…”, perhaps with a phrase like “Well, I won’t keep you any longer then”.
English speakers tend to give very specific reasons for ending a call. Even if they suspect it’s probably a lie, an English speaker will appreciate the effort you put into an excuse like “Well, I’d love to chat more but I can see my boss is walking in my direction and he doesn’t seem very happy”. More general excuses like “Well, I have to go” are fine or even more standard in other languages, but in English “Sorry, I have to go” can mean “I really am too busy to speak to you any longer” or even (depending on your intonation) “I don’t want to speak to you. Please don’t phone me again”.
As with the “Sorry,…” and “Thanks…” sentences at the start of a call, you have to be quite careful in English that “Thanks for calling” and (especially) “Thanks for your help” make sense as a way of ending that (specific) call. For example, in English “Thanks for your help” might sound like a criticism if they haven’t been able to help you. However, “Cheers” at the end of the telephone conversation seems to be losing all special meaning in (British) English, although it does still sometimes retain its meaning of “Thanks (in advance)”. It’s a bit too heavy to actually say “Thanks in advance” at the end of an English call, because it sounds like “Don’t forget”, but in Japanese it is considered polite to say “Please” (“O-negai shimasu”) again at the end of the request phone call.
Using “See you” to just mean “Bye” seems to be quite universal, although German has “Auf wiederhoren” (until I hear you again) in place of “Auf wiedersehen” (until I see you again). In a similar way, equivalents of “Take care” have no special meaning in many languages, e.g. “Cuidate” in Spanish. Some people use it this way in English, but others save it for when you won’t talk to someone for a while and/ or they are about to do something big like move house.
Apparently in Japanese it is considered rude to instantly hang up after saying “Bye”, especially in business calls. I suppose it can’t hurt in any culture to show that you weren’t desperately waiting to get the other person off the line so you could do something more important, but I would say that in English not instantly hanging up after “Bye” is only really important in romantic situations.