How to be friendly on the phone in English

Summary: How to make informal phone calls without being unfriendly or rude, including how to be friendly at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of typical casual phone calls.

English learning materials quite often present and practise formal business phone calls, but it is just as difficult to sound friendly when you switch to casual phone calls with friends, colleagues you know well, etc. This article gives advice on how to do so. There are also materials on formal and informal calls at https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/telephoning/ and https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/teaching-telephoning/

 

How to be friendly at the start of phone calls

We can often know that someone we know is phoning before we answer by their name popping up on our smartphone screen etc, in which case we can start with a friendly greeting straightaway, as in:

  • Hi John.
  • Hi John. How’s it going?
  • Hi John. Thanks for calling me back.

If you don’t know who’s calling, on home phones we usually just say “Hello?” The only way of making this friendlier is to make sure that we use bright, friendly intonation and don’t sound like someone is interrupting us from something more important. We can then use greetings once we know that is someone we know well, as in:

  • Receiver: Hello?
  • Caller: Hi Alex. It’s John (again).
  • Receiver: Oh, hi John. How’s it going?

Answering a business phone and then finding out you know someone well is similar, as in:

  • Receiver: Good morning. ABC Limited. Alex Case speaking. How may I help you?
  • Caller: Hi Alex. This is John (Smith) (from…)
  • Receiver: Oh, hi John. (This is a nice surprise/ Lovely to hear from you/ Thanks for getting back to me so quickly/ Thanks again for the lovely dinner last night). How are things?

Note the two different ways of giving your own name in the two dialogues above, with “It’s John” being more casual than “This is John”. Also note the different friendly first “How…?” questions. These all have basically the same meaning:

  • How’s it going?
  • How are things?
  • How are you doing?
  • How’s life?
  • How’s life treating you?
  • How are tricks?

These are better than “How are you?” in friendly conversations, as “How are you?” isn’t so informal. It also usually only gets a standard “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” answer that doesn’t really make the conversation friendlier. With friendlier small talk questions, you should give a basic answer, give more information, and then ask a related (but not the same) question back, as in:

  • Receiver: Hello?
  • Caller: Hi Alex. It’s John (from the bowling club).
  • Receiver: Oh, hi John. How’s it going?
  • Caller: Pretty good, but a bit busy. Still organising the Xmas party. How about you? Been busy?

The rules of good small talk on the phone are basically the same as face to face, but some take on more importance as you don’t have gestures and body language such as facial expressions to help. Possible rules for small talk include:

  • Give one or two sentences of extra information and then ask a question back, to change who is speaking as much as possible
  • Smoothly progress through topics by asking related (but not the same) questions back
  • React to what people say (with “Really?”, “No kidding”, “That’s a shame”, etc)
  • Don’t listen in silence, especially if you are listening to long turns from the other person such as personal stories, instead using active listening noises and expressions like “Mmmm hmmm” and “Right”
  • Don’t repeat the same reacting and other active listening phrases (so not “Mmmm hmmm, mmmm hmmm, mmmm hmmmm, etc”)
  • Use extreme intonation to sound interested (as flat intonation can sound bored, that you are thinking about something else and/or that you don’t care)

Although I’ve given tips on how to cope with the other person telling a long personal story, you should generally avoid doing so yourself in phone calls that have another purpose. Instead, one or two small talk questions each is probably enough, moving onto one or two other topics once you’ve started with the basic “How’s it going?” type of question.

Good small talk topics for phone calls include:

  • The place where the other person is (location if they are on their mobile, local time, local weather, background noise, etc)
  • Recent past (last night, etc)
  • Things that they already told you that they are going to do (“How was your presentation?”, etc)
  • News that you heard about the other person in other ways (from colleagues, on social media, etc)

When the other person doesn’t ask a question back, when there is a bit of silence or when you feel like there’s been enough small talk, you can get down to business with:

  • So, what can I do for you (today)?
  • So, what’s up?
  • Well, to what do I owe this pleasure?

These are all more casual ways of saying “How can I help you (today)?” Note the use of a transitions expression like “Well” before the question to make the change smoother. “Anyway” is another option, but it is also used to show that the conversation has gone off topic, and so can sound rude if not used carefully. “Okay” and “Right” are also similar, but more dynamic and therefore a bit forceful at times. Therefore, “So” is usually the best option.

The caller can also do the same thing if the receiver doesn’t ask such a question, as in:

  • (Well,) (I’m) calling about…
  • (Anyway) (I’m) ringing to…

“(It’s) about…”is also more casual than “I’m calling in connection with…”, but is not really friendlier, so these two are usually better.

Sometimes the reason for the call is just to speak to someone else. More casual and friendlier alternatives to “Could I speak to…?” include:

  • Is Jane around?
  • Is Jane home?

If you didn’t use your name at the beginning of the call and the caller is using “Is Jane around/ home?” to indirectly check who you are, you can answer with “That’s me” (a more casual way of saying “Speaking”).

Informal positive answers to asking to speak to someone else include:

  • Just a sec’. I’ll get her for you.
  • Just a mo’. I’ll put you through.

Negative answers basically follow the same pattern as more formal replies, usually meaning a giving bad news phrase, a reason why they aren’t available, then usually an offer of help, as in:

  • Sorry, she’s just popped out to the supermarket. I’ll tell her you called.
  • Sorry, you just missed her. She’s just gone home for the day. (Do you) want to leave a message?

As with formal phone calls, reasons why someone isn’t available should be very specific ones like these, with more general ones like “She’s busy” and “She’s not here” sounding like an angry housemate or like a mother who wants to stop someone talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend.

Standard responses to “Wanna leave a message?” like “Yes, please. Can you ask her…?” and “No, that’s okay, thanks. I’ll just phone again later” are also fine in casual phone calls, but there are also more informal variations like:

  • That’d be great. I just wanted to let her know that…
  • No, don’t bother, thanks. I’ll just text her instead.

 

How to be friendly in the body of a phone call

The language of the body of the phone call is basically the same as a friendly face to face conversation. Casual phrases which often come up in different kinds of phone calls include:

  • Can you do more a huge favour and…?/ You couldn’t… for me, could you?
  • You don’t know…, do you?/ I need a bit of info about…/ Can you fill me in on…?
  • You doing anything…?/ You free…?/ (Do you) wanna meet up…?/ (Do you) fancy…?/ (Are) you around…?
  • It’s a bit of a bummer, but…/ Do you want the bad news or the good news first?/ ’Fraid…
  • Soooooo sorry about…/ So so so sorry about…

There’s nothing unfriendly about using more standard language like “Can you help me with…?” for requests and “Are you free…?” for making arrangements. However, using casual language like shortened sentences and idioms emphasises that you have the kind of friendly relationship where such really casual language is okay. This can also help soften the request etc.

 

How to be friendly at the end of phone calls

Ending informal phone calls without sounding unfriendly is tricky, as “Can I help you with anything else?” is much too formal and “Is that all?”/ “Is that it?” sounds impatient. I also wouldn’t usually use small talk questions like those we use to end face to face chats (“Do you have any plans for the weekend?”, etc).

The caller can use can use slightly longer and therefore friendlier versions of “That’s it”, as in:

  • So, I think that’s it for now, thanks.
  • I reckon you’ve answered all my questions, thanks.

Longer conversations, especially ones with no particular purpose such as just catching up/ staying in touch, need an even longer phrase. That could include something nice about the conversation, a reason for ending, and mention of future contact, like:

  • Well, it’s been great to catch up, but it sounds like dinner’s nearly ready, so I’ll phone again next week (if that’s okay).
  • So, this has been really helpful, but I have to ring a couple more people, so speak to you soon.

Saying something nice about the conversation can also be done on its own, with phrases like

  • It was lovely to speak to you.
  • It was great to hear from you.

Mentioning future contact is also often done on its own, with phrases like:

  • Can’t wait to see you next week!
  • Let’s not leave it so long next time.
  • See you Monday.
  • Catch you later.
  • Just give me a call if anything else springs to mind.
  • I’ll drop you a line if I’ve forgotten anything.

We can also offer our good wishes for something that they will do, as in:

  • Have a great weekend
  • Have a good one
  • Best of luck with your exam
  • Take care
  • Bon voyage

“Thank you for calling” with “Thanks for your help” is too formal for most friendly phone calls, although “Thanks, that was really helpful” can be fine. Friendly equivalents include “Thanks for listening to me witter on”, “Thanks again for thinking of me” and “Thanks for your kind words”, but these are for very specific situations. Therefore, “Thanks” is not so common at the end of friendly phone calls.

Friendly parting greetings include:

  • Bye
  • Bye for now
  • Bye bye
  • See you
  • See ya

You could also end with “Good night” (or a more babyish version like “Sweet dreams” or “Nighty night”) if they have mentioned that they are going to sleep just after this call.

 

General tips on being friendly on the phone

  • Use extreme intonation to sound like you really want to speak to the other person and are interested in what they say
  • Switch to friendly greetings if you didn’t know who they were and so started with formal language
  • Avoid “How are you?”, the same question back and very short answers if you want to stimulate good small talk
  • After the right amount of small talk, choose a good moment and use a nice phrase to smoothly transition to the reason for the call
  • You can use idioms, abbreviations, and shortened sentences like “You coming…?” to emphasise that you know each other well enough to not stand on ceremony
  • Avoid “busy businessman in the movies” language like “Yes?”, “Is that it?” and imperatives like “Get Jane for me” and “Tell him to…”
  • Avoid formal written language, including long words like “concerning”, “regarding” and “convenient”
  • Use a transitions phrase to end the body of the call
  • End by saying something nice about the call, giving a reason for ending, mentioning future contact and/ or giving good wishes for the future
  • Finish with a friendly parting greeting

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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