This is a guest post from Dan Ednie, 22, who is a young Melbourne entrepreneur studying linguistics at the University of Melbourne. In 2008 he founded Global Heart Tours, a bilingual tour service that connects Australian Language learners with international students and generally travellers. He writes and consults primarily about second language acquisition and cross-cultural communication, but is able to consult for any linguistic problems. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dial number >> phone rings>> receiver answers
B: (1 second pause) Hi Steve, I mean, Good afternoon Mr. Jobs. My name is Dan and I’m calling with a stellar proposit….
A: *Beep, beep, beep, beep*
Photo by Fernando Mineiro
We all know that the opening few sentences of any phone conversation are crucial. A stammer, a false start (“My name, My name is Dan Ednie umm”), a stunned silence, are all things which do happen, and can be hard to recover from. Phone manner is an art, and for anyone at any level of business it’s an enormous asset. In the above example, Dan is thrown off by Steve Jobs opening, he was expecting something like ‘Hello’, or ‘Steve here’ or ‘Steve Jobs’.
The question for entrepreneurs and linguists is, why has this been such a big factor, and how can we fix it?
Linguists have been writing in the last ten years, frequently: on phone exchanges; address terms (what we call each other by); and the causes of dis-fluency markers (ums, errs, mispronunciations). Honourable a study as it is, very little of the research has been made available and I hope to give some kind of an insight into what academic linguists make of this aspect of business communication.In 1979, American conversation analyst, Schegloff, concluded that the majority of American telephone openings have a direct identification and recognition. The four variations of these were:
1. a summons-answer sequence (e.g. the phone rings and the callee answers ‘Dave speaking’);
2. an identification and/or recognition sequence (e.g. ‘Dave!’/‘Hey Sarah’);
3. a greeting sequence (e.g. ‘Hi’/‘Hi’);
4. a ‘how are you’ sequence (e.g. ‘How are you?’/‘Alright, yourself?’)
These are all quite acceptable responses, and if we are trying to create a new relationship, set up an interview, or respond to their advertisement, we will deal with these openings with ease.Are these openings universal, can they cross national boundaries? With something as variable as how to answer the phone, we might expect to vary a lot. Especially if we keep in mind that in some cultures its normal for people to actually wait for the caller to start, has this ever happened to anyone else? Hopper, Hymes and Chaika have found that these vary significantly across cultures, especially between different languages. Fortunately between English speakers the difference is not too great, there are some similarities between Americans and Australians, as both tend to answer the phone with ‘Hello’ in private calls, while business callees tend to provide explicit self-identification, often the name of the business. O’Loughlin’s (1989) reported a higher frequency of self-identification (67%) in business calls than private calls (34%). What is incredible is that 33% of business calls don’t self identify, and thus we see the abnormal ‘yes’, ‘hello’ or something else unexpected as quite a significant player.
But what about the traditional G’day, is that still happening, or in this age of iSnack Web 2.0’s have we lost our Paul Hogan heritage. O’Loughlin’s study found that the informal ‘G’day’ was used but twice by male callers and not once by a callee.
So, what went wrong for Dan in the Steve Jobs phone call? As an Australian Dan was used to either a ‘Hello’, Hello, this is Steve Jobs’ or a direct confirmation ‘Steve Jobs’. Receiving nothing but a terse ‘Yes’, the dialogue sequence is totally thrown off and the rest is history, Dan doesn’t even get to the pitch because he’s already proven himself as unprofessional, and unorganised. What we need to be aware of is that individuals will vary a lot in their opening sequences, and that when we are speaking to a non-Australia, then we need to plan for the unexpected, and have to composure to say what we have scripted or intended to say. When we contact individuals in a business context, they may be answering the call as though it were a private one, and their circles of friends may have effected a completely unexpected summons-response sequence.