Taking calls in another language – when someone asks an unexpected question

Often my students say that using the telephone is one of the hardest things they have to do when it comes to using English at work.

A couple of days ago I had to call a local restaurant to change a booking. One of the people in our group was working late, so we needed to arrive a bit later.

The man who answered the phone was expecting me to want to make a reservation. He started taking down the details to make a second booking. He didn’t quite understand that I already had one and just wanted to change it.

I think he lost confidence and after he didn’t understand what I wanted, he handed the phone to a colleague who changed my booking.

This was fine, but I started thinking about how it feels to make a telephone call in another language.

I didn’t enjoy it the first few times that I had to call someone in Germany. Actually that’s true British understatement – I was terrified!

Now, I’d still rather send an email, but that’s often true when I’m getting things done in English too!

Some people find it difficult to use the telephone, whether it’s in their native language or another one, and I’m not talking about that. I am talking about the uncomfortable feeling we often have when using the telephone to communicate for the first time in another language. Usually that initial terror wears off after you’ve made the first few calls. Then, with time, you grow in confidence, especially if you’re dealing with a lot of similar enquiries. You can guess what people want. You know what’s expected.

But then someone will come along like me and want something a bit different. That can feel a bit daunting if you don’t understand what they want, or if you don’t know what to do with their enquiry.

Sometimes it can help if you go through the things that people might be calling about, and make a plan of what you will do or say in each situation.

However, even if you are super-organised and you do all of that, you still might end up talking to someone who wants something a bit different, or whose spoken English is hard to follow, or someone who’s in a loud environment, which makes it difficult to work out what they are saying.

In those cases, you also need a plan:

  • Will you ask them to repeat themselves?
  • Will you ask them to wait?
  • Will you ask for their details so that you can call them back later when you have found out the answer (if it’s something you haven’t come across before)?
  • Will you ask someone else for help?

The worst thing you can do is run away or put the phone down. Even if you really want to because you feel nervous, it doesn’t create a good impression.

Have you had any experiences like this, either of making a call, or taking a call in another language where things didn’t quite go as you had expected? Let me know in the comments.

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Kirsty working with students