How to get out of Phone Call Hell

accent problems on phoneI recently was on a phone call with a prospective new client. I spent a solid 10 to 15 minutes of that call trying to get his email address. He had an unusually heavy accent and his email address was long and complicated. In the end, I gave him mine, and we were finally able to write to each other. It was an awkward and shaky way to start a professional relationship.

The phone is not speech-friendly to begin with. Along with the random noises, gaps, and blips in the signal, we are also hearing only a portion of the acoustic message.

We describe sound in terms of pitch (low to high) and volume (soft to loud). The sounds of human speech fall into the pitch range of about 100 to 8,000 Hertz (Hz). However, speech sounds over a phone call are limited to a bandwidth of about 3000 Hz. All of the frequencies in your voice below 400 Hz and above 3400 Hz are eliminated. That’s why certain alphabet letters, such as F and S, are virtually indistinguishable over the phone – their frequency is out of the phone’s acoustic range.

foreign accent reduction telephoneOn the audiogram chart, you will see that F and S land well above the 3400 Hz limit.

Other pairs of letters that are notoriously difficult to distinguish are:  P/B, M/N, and T/D. Although they fall in the phone’s bandwidth range, they have overlapping acoustic features that make them sound almost the same.

A non-native speaker can have trouble pronouncing certain letters.  A Russian speaker, for example, might say the word “we” for the letter V.  Speakers from India often pronounce “H” as “Hetch”, and the Hindi-influenced “T” too much like an American “D”.

Along with these acoustic and linguistic interferences, certain communication behaviors add to the problem. For example, spelling the address too quickly can make it impossible for the listener to get the information right. (This goes for phone numbers as well, where the digits are totally random. Have you ever played a voicemail repeatedly, trying to understand someone’s phone number? If one number is off, you may need to call them up to 10 times trying 10 different phone numbers!)

Here are some tips for getting your information communicated accurately:

  1. Popular choices for alphabet code-words (source:

    Always use code-words for the consonants (and the vowels, to be safe). Use familiar words that can’t be confused for other words and that give obvious cues for the letter. (Do not say “A” as in “Are”….I actually heard this once!)

  2. Pause slightly between letters to make sure the listener processed the information unit. (A as in apple – pause – C as in cat…)

  3. Use “clear speech”: over-articulate, as though the listener were hard of hearing.

  4. Do not repeat the unit, unless it’s a double letter. Say it once, clearly. Keep moving forward.

  5. For the listener: stay silent as you’re writing down the information. Do not say “uh-huh” or make any little speech noises! You won’t understand what’s being spoken if you’re interrupting the speaker.

  6. For the listener: repeat back the full email address with code-words to be sure you got it right.

Unfortunately, our problems with hearing don’t stop when we hang up the phone. Here’s a very cool BBC video demonstrating the “McGurk Effect” – how even our eyes convolute what we hear… 👀