Phone etiquette experts: How to be polite when sound quality sucks?
July 16, 2014 12:35 AM   Subscribe

When I'm on the (cell) phone with another person, and I'm not able to hear what they are saying clearly, I get stuck. For persistent low-quality voice calls (i.e. when "can you talk a little louder" isn't the solution and "can you repeat that?" doesn't help), what can I do or say that doesn't make me look like an incompetent, impatient jerk?

When I know the person well (family, close friend), and the situation isn't urgent, I'm fine being direct: "I can't understand you at all; let's try later or text me. Or I'll email you. The connection is bad."

But when it's a delicate, professional, or new social situation... I'm stuck, because I feel like making a big deal out of it would make me a jerk. For example, when a friend calls and he's excited about a new person and there is energy that just can't wait until tomorrow, I don't feel like it's polite to interrupt the moment to say that I can't hear 65% of what he's said very clearly.

I do signal to the other person that I can't hear them by saying, "What? I didn't hear that very well. Can you repeat that?" And then if there's no improvement, I might say one or two more times, "Sorry, can you repeat that? I'm having a hard time making out your words." But after 2-3 times, I just give up and hope that the person asks, "Can you hear me OK now?" to which I would say, "No. I'm sorry, can we try tomorrow?"

But, they'll keep on without too much concern, and I don't feel right interrupting them after every sentence to ask them to repeat things (especially when the repeating DOES NOT HELP MY COMPREHENSION AT ALL. It's just more garbled words). And I feel like such a jerk if I don't just power through the conversation at least for a little longer.

My default is to listen as closely as possible and to note key words and try to piece the convo together. But, when it's my turn to contribute, I probably sound like I haven't been listening at all. For some reason, the person on the other line has NO PROBLEM hearing ME in these circumstances. It's so frustrating!

My questions are:
1. Imagine you are the other person on the phone: how could I handle this situation without hurting your feelings and cutting off the conversation? I'm looking for in-the-moment solutions, if possible, and not "let's talk about this in person over coffee tomorrow." Assume that picking up the conversation at another time is a moot point.

2. Imagine you are an employer interviewing me on the other line: how could I handle this situation most professionally? Assume that most communication is very garbled so setting up another phone interview may not even be an option that I would hear/comprehend. Would it be awful to say, "I'm so sorry, but I cannot understand anything that you're saying. I hope you can understand me. Please let's be in contact over email to make different arrangements. I apologize for having to hang up now. I will send you an email to follow up as soon as I'm off the phone. Thank you for understanding. Goodbye."
posted by RaRa-SpaceRobot to Human Relations (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I have this problem in spades and my only solution is to say, as clearly as possible so as to convey how bad the connection is, "I'm sorry but the connection is very bad, I'm going to hang up and call you back (check number to make sure)."
And then hope for the best, because the new connection isn't always better.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:42 AM on July 16, 2014

I think you have a unhelpful impression of what telling someone "I can't hear you" means. It's a courtesy. It's a politeness. It's honesty. It's so much better than doing the phone version of politely nodding.

1. the vast majority of people understand the limitations of cell technology and aren't hurt by it. Maybe frustrated and disappointed, but that isn't your fault, nor will any reasonable person believe it is.

2. If you're on a phone interview and can't understand the other side, make it clear that you can't understand them. Hang up. Attempt to call them back. If you can't reach them and they don't call back within 5 minutes, email them and explain what happened. This is an understandable reality. Bad connections and dropped calls happen all the time and no one is blamed for it.
posted by inturnaround at 2:08 AM on July 16, 2014 [9 favorites]

"I didn't get any of that, the line's awful. Can I call you back on a land line?"

You're over thinking this. Nobody wants to talk to somebody who can't hear them. Just tell them and phone back on a better line later.
posted by tinkletown at 2:09 AM on July 16, 2014 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I give it like two, three times max of me saying "Sorry, your phone is breaking up a bit. Can you repeat that last thing you said?" or whatever before I'm like, "Sorry, you're breaking up a lot. I can't make out what you're saying at all. Maybe we should try again later? I'll text you. OK, bye!"

If you can't hear them and they are chatting away, my assumption has always been that it's a problem on their end -- they can hear you fine and have no idea that you can't hear them. No one wants to talk to no one, so I'm sure they appreciate being told they can't be heard. You have to tell them. And it's not hurtful. What's hurtful is someone awkwardly pretending they heard you talking for like 10 minutes when they missed 90 percent of it. If I found out that someone "pieced" a conversation together after the fact, I would be extremely annoyed. Your scripts are fine and it doesn't offend anyone.

And what you're doing also means throughout the conversation you are faking when you say "Right." "Oh, yeah." or whatever. Do not lie to people because their cell phone reception is bad. Do not make them think you listened to them when you didn't. It's rude.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:54 AM on July 16, 2014

I speak on the phone a lot for work. I interrupt people and say, "I am sorry, the connection is bad and I cannot hear you." Usually, they are somewhere with bad reception and they move or call me back in a few minutes. No one has ever seemed to mind. I would do exactly the same for a phone interview. It isn't a big deal just a momentary annoyance.
posted by rachums at 4:50 AM on July 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'd just say, "Dude, you're cutting out, call me right back." And people say it to me. Sometimes I'll say, "I'm home, call my land line."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:04 AM on July 16, 2014

Agreed with the above. For some reason hanging up and trying again often results in a better connection, so just let them know that you can't hear, and you're going to call right back. When you do call back, you can maintain the flow by saying, "Sorry about that. You were saying that you've met this awesome guy. Great! Tell me more!" or whatever fits the conversation.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:44 AM on July 16, 2014

"Hey, we seem to have a bad connection. Can I call you back from another phone?"

This happens all the time. It even happens on the hardwired phones in my office, which have some sort of VOIP-type system going on, and on my parents' landline phone, which is copper. Sometimes you call and it's a terrible connection, and then you call back and the connection is fine even if both ends of the conversation are on the same phones as before.

Phones are weird. People mostly understand that.
posted by pie ninja at 5:47 AM on July 16, 2014

For some of them, it might work if you can request they turn off the damned speaker phone. That is probably the second-most-common cause of harrowing, miserably-unhearable calls among people who call me.
posted by Coatlicue at 6:44 AM on July 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

I have to do this all the time on international recruiting calls and nobody's ever been offended. They appreciate that I care enough about what they're saying to try a different connection.

I just say "excuse me - this connection's bad, I can't hear what you're saying - can I call you on a land line or Skype?" and if those don't work either, I tell them I'm going to email a couple of reschedule options and I do.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:13 AM on July 16, 2014

If I'm speaking to a client, I say, "I'm sorry, let me stop you here - I'm afraid we have an awful connection, let me see if I can fix that" and I put them on hold. Sometimes the phone connector's loose, I check it, I come back, and they usually have the self-awareness to take me off speakerphone and ask if that helps, which it always does.

If it still doesn't work, I just say "I'm terribly sorry, I'm afraid I really cannot hear you - perhaps we can try this call again?" Have not had anyone get rageful to date. Usually they hang up and email.
posted by Nyx at 8:10 AM on July 16, 2014

Best answer: nthing all of the above. If you're talking to someone really stubborn who refuses to acknowledge that it's a bad connection and insists on keeping the call going, just hang up. You have extremely plausible deniability that the call dropped and then you can call their landline or send an email to follow up.
posted by telegraph at 8:12 AM on July 16, 2014

I get barely-intelligible calls from library patrons all the time -- they call on their cell phones while they're driving with the windows down, or while they're walking down the street, or while they're home with what sounds like a three-ring circus going on in the background, or the connection is just bad... I just tell them that I'm having trouble hearing them, and ask them to call back when there's less background noise, or from a landline phone. If they get irritated, well, there's not much I can do about it.
posted by sarcasticah at 9:03 AM on July 16, 2014

I have had similar experiences as the OP - delicate, job-related phone calls where the person on the other end just keeps talking garbled garbage for 30 minutes despite my repeated insistence that I can't hear what they are saying.

Thankfully in my industry, it's not that big of a deal to say "Can we just talk next week?"

I think, if the situation is otherwise for the OP, it is incumbent upon them to procure a phone services that is reliable. A landline, VOIP, or convenient in-person connection where you can absolutely say, with confidence, "I'll call you back in 5 minutes."

If the phone issue is on the other end and it is the VP who is taking this call while in the car with his baby, well, good luck! What I have done in the past is, after the terrible phone call, sent an email saying "I apologize that I had just the most terrible connection possible and could only hear 1/3 of what you said. Please review these key points and next steps to make sure I'm on the same boat as you"
posted by rebent at 12:59 PM on July 16, 2014

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