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Telephoning - Telephoning across cultures


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Telephoning - Telephoning across cultures



2. Telephoning across cultures

Many people are not very confident about using the telephone in English. However, good preparation can make telephoning much easier and more effective. Then, once the call begins, speak slowly and clearly and use simple language.

Check that you understand what has been said. Repeat the most important information, look for confirmation. Ask for repetition if you think it is necessary.

Remember too that different cultures have different ways of using language. Some speak in a very literal way so it is always quite clear what they mean. Others are more indirect, using hints, suggestions and understatement (for example ‘not very good results’ = ‘absolutely disastrous’) to put over their message. North America, Scandinavia, Germany and France are ‘explicit’ countries, while the British have a reputation for not making clear exactly what they mean. One reason for this seems to be that the British use language in a more abstract way than most Americans and continental Europeans. In Britain there are also conventions of politeness and a tendency to avoid showing one’s true feelings. For example if a Dutchman says an idea is ‘interesting’ he means that it is interesting. If an Englishman says that an idea is ‘interesting’ you have to deduce from the way he says it whether he means it is a good idea or a bad idea.

Meanwhile, for a similar reason Japanese, Russian and Arabs – ‘subtle’ countries – sometimes seem vague and devious to the British. If they say an idea is interesting it may be out of politeness.

The opposite of this is that plain speakers can seem rude and dominating to subtle speakers, as Americans can sound to the British – or the British to the Japanese.

The British have the tendency to engage in small talk at the beginning and end of a telephone conversation. Questions about the weather, health, business in general and what one has been doing recently are all part of telephoning, laying a foundation for the true purpose of the call. At the end of the call there may well be various pleasantries, Nice talking to you, Say hello to the family (if you have met them) and Looking forward to seeing you again soon. A sharp, brief style of talking on the phone may appear unfriendly to a British partner. Not all nationalities are as keen on small talk as the British!

Being aware of these differences can help in understanding people with different cultural traditions. The difficulty on the telephone is that you cannot see the body language to help you.

Choose the closest definition of the following words from the text.


a. direct and clear b. full of literary style c. abstract and



a. kind words b. less strong way of talking c. clever



a. reduce b. work out c. disagree


a. unclear b. unfriendly c. insincere


a. rude b. dishonest c. clever


a. question b. request c. polite remarks

Language Checklist

Telephoning (1)

Introducing yourself

Good morning, Aristo.

Hello, this is … from …

Hello, my name’s … calling from …

Saying who you want

I’d like to speak to … please.

Could I have the … Department, please?

Is… there, please?

Saying someone is not available

I’m sorry he/she’s not available …

Sorry, he/she’s away / not in / in a meeting / in Milan.

Leaving and taking messages

Could you give him/her a message?

Can I leave him/her a message?

Please tell him/her …

Please ask him/her to ring me on…

Can I take a message?

If you give me your number I’ll ask him/her to call you later.

Offering to help in other ways

Can anyone else help you?

Can I help you perhaps?

Would you like to speak to his assistant?

Shall I ask him to call you back?

Asking for repetition

Sorry, I didn’t catch (your name / your number / your company name )

Sorry, could you repeat your (name, number, etc.).

Sorry, I didn’t hear that.

Sorry, I didn’t understand that.

Could you spell (that / your name), please.

Acknowledging repetition

Okay, I’ve got that now.

(Mr. Kyoto) I understand.

I see, thank you.

Skill Checklist

Telephoning: Preparation for a call

Reading – background information

Desk preparation

Have the following available:

Relevant documentation / notes

Correspondence received

Computer files on screen

Pen and paper


Check time available

How much time do you need?

How much time do you have?


Who do you want to speak to?

In case of non/availability, have an alternative strategy:

Call back / be called back – when?

Leave a message

Speak to someone else

Write or fax information

Do you want to:

Find out information?

Give information?


Do you need to refer to:

A previous call?

A letter, order, invoice or fax?

Someone else (who?)

An event (what? When?)


What do you expect the other person to say / ask you? how will you respond?

Exercise 1 Making a call

A few common expressions are enough for most telephone conversations. Practice these telephone expressions by completing the following dialogue using the words listed below.

Switchboard Conglomerate Group; can I help you?

You Could I ------ ------- Mr. Pardee, please?

Switchboard Putting you ------ .

Secretary Hello, Mr. Pardee’s ------ . -------- I help you?

You ------, can you hear me? It’s a ------ line. Could you --- ---- up, please?

Secretary IS THAT BETTER? Who’s --------, please?

You (your name) from (your company).

Secretary Oh, hello. How nice to hear from you again. We haven’t seen you for ages. How are you?

You Fine thanks. Could you ------- me -------- to Mr. Pardee, please?

Secretary -------- the line a moment. I’ll see if he’s in. I’m sorry, I’m afraid he’s not in the ------- at the ------ . Could you give me your ----------, and I’ll ask him to ------- you ---------- ?

You I’m ----- 347 8621. That’s London.

Secretary Would you like to leave any -------- for him?

You No thanks. Just tell him I --------- .

Secretary Certainly. Nice to hear from you again.

You I’ll expect him to ------- me this afternoon, then. Thanks.

Secretary You’re welcome. Goodbye.

On  speak to back message bad put number call ring

Secretary through office speak speaking can hello

Rang  hold moment through

Note: If you do not hear or understand the other person, say: I’m sorry? or I’m sorry, I don’t understand. It is not polite to say: Please repeat!

DATAFILE: The Telephone

This datafile gives you many of the terms and phrases commonly used in making telephone calls.

The directory

Look up their number in the directory. (UK). 

I’ll look up the number in the telephone book. (US).

The number is ex-directory. (UK).

The number is unlisted. (US).

I’ll ring Directory Enquiries. (UK).

I’ll ring information. (US).

The receiver

Can I help you?

Putting you through.

I’m afraid he’s not available at the moment. (UK).

I’m afraid he’s tided up at the moment.

You’re welcome. Goodbye.

The line 

He’s on the other line.

Would you like to hold the line? 

The line is engaged. (UK).

The line is busy. (US).

The operator (in the public telephone system)

Dial 100 for the operator. (UK).

Dial 0 (zero) for the operator. (US).

I’d like to make a reverse charge call. (UK).

I’d like to make a collect call. (US).

I’d like to make a transfer charge call. (UK). 

The dial

Dial 123 for the correct time. (UK).

Listen for the dialling tone.

All lines to the country you have dialled are engaged.

Please try later. (UK).

The codebook

I’m on a long distance (or international) call.

The STD code is … (UK).

The area code is … (US).

A message pad

Can I tell him who called?

Can I give her a message?

Let me take down your number.


If you do not understand, say… “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

Practice 1

Use the following flow chart to make a complete telephone conversation. If you need to, refer to the Language Checklist.

Caller Receptionist

‘Good morning, Gorliz and Zimmerman.’

Introduce yourself.

Ask to speak to Mr. Conrad Bird.

Mr. Bird is not in.

Ask when you can contact him.

Explain that he is away – offer to take a message.

You want Mr. Bird to call you.

Repeat your name.

Give your number.

Confirm the information.

End call.

End call.

Practice 2

In the following conversation, a Singaporean exporter plans to send goods from Singapore to Greece. He wants to have a meeting with a Greek shipping company, Intership.

Suggest suitable phrases for each step in the conversation, then practice the dialogue with a colleague.

Caller (Computech) Called Person (Intership)

‘Intership, good morning.’


Introduce yourself.

Check name.

Confirm / correct.

Offer to help.

Ask for appointment

with Mr. Dionis.

Ask what it’s about.

Explain that you want

to discuss transport of goods

from Singapore to Athens.

Acknowledge – ask when would be a good time.

Suggest next week.

Reject – Mr. Dionis is away.

Suggest beginning of next



Suggest Monday 3rd.

Reject – On Monday Mr. Dionis is busy all day.

Suggest Tuesday.

Agree. Suggest 10.00 a.m.

Agree – ask for fax to confirm.

Offer to book hotel.

Agree to fax – hotel booking

is not necessary.

Signal end of call.

End call / thanks / refer to fax, etc.

End call.

Language Checklist

Telephoning (2)

Stating reason for a call

I’m ringing to …

I’d like to …

I need some information about …

Making arrangements

Could we meet some time next month?

When would be a good time?

Would Thursday at 5 o’clock suit you?

What about July 21st?

That would be fine.

No, sorry, I can’t make it then.

Sorry I’m too busy next week.

Changing arrangements

We’ve an appointment for next month, but …

I’m afraid I can’t come on that day.

Could we fix an alternative?

Confirming information


Can I check that? You said …

To confirm that …

Can you / can I confirm that by fax?

Ending a call

Right. I think that’ all.

Thanks very much for your help.

Do call if you need anything else.

I look forward to … seeing you / your call / your letter / your fax / our meeting.

Goodbye and thanks.

Bye for now.

Skills Checklist

Telephoning (2)






Background information

Key information

Repetition, emphasis and confirmation

Possible confirmation by fax


Formal / informal

Cold call / new contact / established contact

In-company vs. Customer / Supplier / Outside agent

Colleague / friend / business associate / public

Company image

Structure of a call


Introduce yourself

Get who you want

Small talk

State problem / reason for call


Ask questions

Get / give information

Confirm information


Signal end

Thank other person

Small talk

Refer to next contact

Close call

Check that there’s nothing else to say

Exercise 2  Changing arrangements

It is not always possible to follow your original plans. You, or your contact, may want to change an appointment.

Language input To apologize, say: I’m afraid that ….

I’m sorry but …

To suggest another time, say: Could I suggest …?

What about …?

Perhaps …?

Below is the schedule for your week in Sydney, Australia. Just before you leave for Sydney you receive various telephone calls from the people you are going to visit. They want to change their appointments. But you do not want to change the order in which you visit them. First apologize for not managing the day they suggest, then suggest a different time on the original day. Here you have their calls:

Hello? Mr. Rossi? This is the Australian Chemical Bank. I’m Mr. Whitle’s secretary. I understand you have an appointment for 10 a.m. on Tuesday 13th. I’m afraid that Mr. Whitley is rather tied up them. Could I suggest Monday instead?

Yes, I’m sure that will be OK.

Hello, Mr. Rossi? Tim Brown, your agent. Small problem. Our meeting for Friday is all right, but Monday afternoon is likely to be difficult; someone is coming to see us who might be a useful outlet for some of your range. perhaps we could change our meeting to Tuesday afternoon?

Yes, OK. Right, that’s fine.

Mr. Rossi? It’s Jenny Kinsella here. From B.I.G. I’m sorry but my colleagues can’t all make it on Thursday afternoon. Could I suggest we meet on Tuesday instead?

Er… yes… why not? OK … Well, thank you very much.

Hello again, Tim Brown here again. I forgot; I have some other customers visiting on Friday morning. How about a meeting on Thursday sometime, if that’s all right with you?

Right. Sorry to be difficult. Thanks a lot, Mr. Rossi. Bye now.

Mr. Rossi? Good morning. I’m ringing for Mr. Lund of Lund and Lund Associates. He’s very sorry, but he won’t be able to manage Wednesday afternoon. Could I suggest Friday afternoon instead?

Well, I think that should be all right. I’ll give you a cal this afternoon to confirm. Thank you. Goodbye.

Monday, 12 November

Morning Arrive Sydney airport 8.30 a.m.

Afternoon  3 p.m. Tim Brown (agent) at hotel

Tuesday, 13 November

Morning 10 a.m. Mr. Whitley, Australian Chemical Bank


Wednesday, 14 November


Afternoon  2 p.m. Lund & Lund Associates (Mr. William Lund)

Thursday, 15 November


Afternoon  3 p.m. Jenny Kinsella + colleagues (B.I.G. Distribution)

Friday, 16 November

Morning 11 a.m. Tim Brown

Afternoon  flight 390, Depart Sydney 6 p.m.

Practice 3

Use the flow chart below as the basis for a telephone conversation involving a complaint. Refer to the Language Checklist if you need to.

Berraondo S.A. Tao Loon Company

(Sales Office)



Introduce yourself.

Offer to help.

Explain problem.

Order HF5618 for 20 printers.

Only 17 have arrived.

Express surprise.

This is second time you have

received an incomplete delivery.

Suggest possible error in order administration.

Agree – say you need the

other three printers urgently.

Delays are costing you goodwill –

unhappy customers.

Explain stock problems.

Ask for a promise of delivery

date – ASAP.

Promise next Monday.

Complain – you want despatch now.

Express regret – not possible.

Ask for fax to confirm despatch.

Agree – apologize.

End call.

Language Checklist

Telephoning (3)

Stating reason for the call

I’m calling about …

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with …

I’m ringing to complain about …

Explaining the problem

There seems to be …

We haven’t received…

The … doesn’t work.

The quality of the work is below standard.

The specifications are not in accordance with our order.

Referring to previous problems

It’s not the first time we’ve had this problem.

This is the (third) time this has happened.

Three months ago…

We had a meeting about this and you assured us that…


If the problem is not resolved…

We’ll have to reconsider our position.

We’ll have to renegotiate the contract.

We’ll contact other suppliers.

The consequences could be very serious.

Handling complaints and other problems

Asking for details

Could you tell me exactly what …?

Can you tell me …?

What’s the …?


I’m sorry to hear that.

I’m sorry about the problem / delay / mistake…

Denying an accusation

No, I don’t think that can be right.

I’m sorry but I think you’re mistaken.

I’m afraid that’s not quite right.

I’m afraid that can’t be true.

Skills Checklist

Telephoning (3)

If you receive a complaint:

Consider your company’s reputation

Express surprise

Ask for details

Suggest action

Promise to investigate

Make reasonable suggestions, offers to help.

Consider your customer and:

Show polite understanding

Use active listening

Reassure customer.

If you make a complaint:

Prepare for the call

Be sure of the facts

Have documentation available

Decide what you require to resolve the problem – at least partially – or completely.

Who is to blame?

Who is responsible?

Are you talking to the right person?

Was your order or your specifications correct?

Were you partly responsible for arrangements which went wrong, e.g. transport?

Does responsibility actually lie elsewhere, i.e. with a third party?

If you do not get what you want:

Keep control – state what you need calmly

Do you need to continue to do business with the other side?

If you do, keep a good relationship

Express disappointment – not anger

Don’t use threats – unless you have to!

Read the text, then mark the sentences that follow as True (T) or False (F).

In some countries, like Italy and Britain, conversation is a form of entertainment. There is an endless flow and if you break the flow for a second someone else will pick it up. In other countries there is a higher value placed on listening – it is not only impolite to break in but listeners will consider what has been said in silence before responding. Finland and Japan are examples.

If you are talking to people who are also speaking English as a foreign language, they are likely to leave gaps and silences while they search for words or try to make sense of what you have just said. So be patient and try not to interrupt, as you would hope they would be patient with you.

Every country has its own codes of etiquette. For example it is common for Anglo-Saxons to use first names very quickly, even in a letter of fax or telephone call. Such instant familiarity is much less acceptable in the rest of Europe and Asia where even business partners and colleagues of many years’ acquaintance address each other by the equivalent of Mr. or Mrs. And the last name or job title.

So stick to last names unless you specifically agree to do otherwise. Don’t interpret the other person’s formality as stiffness or unfriendliness. On the other hand, if business partners with an Anglo-Saxon background get on to first name terms straightaway, don’t be surprised.

Above all, one should remember that people do not usually mind if their own codes are broken by foreigners as long as they sense consideration and goodwill. This is much more important than a set of rules of etiquette.

a. For the British and the Italians it is normal to interrupt the other speaker during the conversation.

b. A special importance is attached to listening in Japanese and Finnish cultures.

c. One should interrupt and try to help speakers who may have difficulty in saying what they want to say.

d. It is unusual for Americans and British to use first names early in a business relationship.

e. It doesn’t matter if you break certain social rules if it is clear that you are sensitive to other people.

f. Etiquette is the critical point in telephoning between different cultures.

Politica de confidentialitate



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