Why Is Talking on the Phone in English So Hard?
As corporate language trainers, we’ve identified two main factors that can make phone calls in English difficult for non-native speakers.
First, using English with native speakers at work can feel very different from the English conversation practice you had in school. The English speakers you work with might have regional accents that you’ve never been exposed to. They probably use slang or idioms that you’re not familiar with. Your field might have its own specialized vocabulary that (understandably!) your English classes in school never covered.
And then there’s the fact that “office English” can feel like its own language sometimes. For example, what does your colleague mean when he says you need to have something “on your radar”?
All of this is challenging enough when you are talking with native English speakers face to face. But at least then you can use nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language to fill in any gaps in your understanding. Just think about how much information it gives you when someone is leaning forward and nodding as you speak vs. fidgeting or glancing around the room.
When you’re talking on the phone, though, you don’t have this information. You can’t see whether someone is smiling or scowling. You don’t know whether that silence on the conference call is because people are uncomfortable or whether they’re just processing what someone else said.
When you put those two factors together, it’s no wonder that some non-native English speakers dread talking on the phone in English. You may be worried about missing key information, or you may feel self-conscious about your English abilities or your accent. Perhaps you even hesitate to speak up about things you care about because it’s hard to put your ideas into English in front of the “invisible audience” on a conference call.
5 Tips to Make Talking on the Phone in English Easier
There’s no job where you’ll never have to talk on the phone (at least that we know of). But we do have some strategies to help you feel more at ease when you must have phone conversations in English.
- First, try to change phone calls to video meetings whenever you can so that you can see more of people’s expressions and body language. The rise of Zoom and similar platforms during the pandemic definitely makes it easier these days to ask for a video meeting instead of a conference call.
- For those phone calls you can’t get out of, it helps to build your understanding of U.S. business call etiquette as it compares to your home country. For example, if you’re from Spain, you might be used to more personal catching up on a call than your U.S. colleagues prefer. If you’re not aware of those cultural differences, you may think they’re being abrupt or cold.
- Check out Fluency Corp’s guide to “office English.” In this article, we help you understand confusing U.S. business terms like “circle back around” and “bring to the table.” You can also ask the native English speakers you work with for help understanding business jargon. In the process, you might discover that jargon gets on their nerves, too, and that you can all work together to avoid it.
- Consider asking leaders at your organization to stress the importance of clarity and good manners during conference calls. For example, could each call start with a reminder to minimize interruptions? This would make it easier for you to follow the conversation as a non-native English speaker, but it also benefits others who may have had trouble getting their ideas heard.
- Take English classes that focus on phone calls and other real-world situations you find yourself in at work. As you may have experienced yourself, all the vocabulary drills in the world will not prepare you to keep up with U.S. colleagues from different regions on the same conference call. Instead, ask your instructor to focus on things like useful phrases for talking on the phone in English, understanding your colleagues’ accents and the idioms and slang they use, and the most common words and phrases you need to talk about your work, whether that’s manufacturing, marketing or medicine. If others have trouble understanding you on phone calls, you could also ask your instructor for help with your accent.
English Language Training With Fluency Corp
If you’re having trouble understanding or being understood on calls with English speakers, Fluency Corp can help. We offer English classes with native speakers, both in person and online. And we customize the content of our classes according to what you need to be at your best on the job.