Which spelling alphabet should I learn?
August 5, 2019 10:00 AM   Subscribe

My name is unusual and long. This causes confusion when trying to spell it out over the phone when speaking with customer service representatives. I want to learn a spelling alphabet to improve this situation. But which one?

Is there a de-facto standard spelling alphabet in the customer service sector? If there is, it seems like that's the one I should learn. Western Union? NATO? Wikipedia presents a boggling array of choices.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've tried NATO, but people tend to get confused. Instead, I created my own spelling alphabet based on easy-to-hear first names, the shorter the better. "That's S as in Sam, T as in Tom." You also have to make sure to do the "[Letter] as in [Word]" construction, as civilians don't seem to understand the "Papa Romeo Oscar" style spelling.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:09 AM on August 5, 2019 [12 favorites]

As a ham, I'm partial to the NATO convention but for clarifying my name on the phone, I usually fall back to whatever words are likeliest to be understood: "N as in November, B as in Boy"
posted by jquinby at 10:10 AM on August 5, 2019

Whichever one -- or combination -- works best for your name. I learned the NATO alphabet as a kid and used it for decades in the actual Army, but I still fall back on non-NATO words for a few letters. The whole point of phonetic alphabets isn't that everyone learns that the "proper" word for "F" is "Foxtrot", it's that "Foxtrot" is distinct enough that the average English speaker will understand that you are saying "F".

So sound a few out, see what works best for you, and commit it to memory. The important part is that you're using words that anyone can understand.
posted by Etrigan at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

In terms of the actual code words used, NATO / ITU / ICAO are the same (with the caveat that you shouldn't use the compound numerics, because no customer service person and few professional radiopersons will understand that).

Just avoid painfully archaic ("Able, Baker, Charlie...") and pathological self-created ("Wombat Pneumococcal Rheostat...") variants, and you should be fine.

I usually open with bare NATO phonetics, then fall back to "ay as in alfa, bee as in bravo" if there's evidence of confusion.
posted by sourcequench at 10:18 AM on August 5, 2019

I have a long name with silent letters and a hyphen, and generally use the NATO alphabet. My mom, whose last name is half of mine, uses her own made-up ones: "P as in Peter, L as in Lemon...." and that seems to work well. It was easier for me to go through and write down the whole entire thing from one list though, and then make a couple of edits as necessary.

I can't decide whether L is "Leema" or "Lima", and I can't decide whether K is "Keelo" or "Kilo". I'm inconsistent.

I have some repeated letters and so I wind up saying "R as in Romeo, R again," rather than repeating the whole thing.

And finally, I couldn't stop saying "Unicorn" instead of "Uniform," and so I just say Unicorn now. There goes my second career as a radio specialist in the armed forces, I guess.

Finally, I have occasionally written other peoples' names out in NATO for them, if I overhear them spelling their names a lot on the phone, and it's always gone over well.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:32 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm also of the pick-it-yourself persuasion, as you can't guarantee that anyone in Customer Service knows any of the particular special alphabets you came across. Just be clear, pick short words, use the same word each time for repeated letters, and watch out for sound-alikes. For me, for instance, I'd lead with "U as in Umbrella", but while I'm tempted to say "B as in Bat", I wouldn't, for fear someone would think I said "V as in Vat". Instead I'd go for "B as in Butter", because it's another well-known word unlikely to be confused with something else.
posted by ubiquity at 10:32 AM on August 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

Oh, and not surprisingly, USAA reps are the quickest on the draw.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:33 AM on August 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

Speaking as a customer service person, there really isn't a go-to one for this. I tend to go with a combination of common English names and simple nouns.
posted by brilliantine at 11:15 AM on August 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Many moons ago I managed an English-language helpdesk which supported offices in the Netherlands. After seeing one of my agents spend 20 minutes trying to reset someone's password I conferenced in to hear that they'd got to the point of troubleshooting the individual letters of the password.

Agent: "E for Echo"
User: "or Edward"
Agent: "Yeah. Then R for Romeo"
User: "or Adam"
Agent: "Wait, what?"

Turns out he was typing the password Wintea2011 and really liked Alfa Romeos.

Whilst I think NATO does have fairly wide usage in English-language communication a shared understanding is more important.
posted by fullerine at 11:37 AM on August 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

I used to listen to and score customer service calls. Here are some examples of what not to use (some from CSRs, some from customers):
A as in George (???)
H as in Hour
I as in iPhone
L as in Elephant
M as in Echo (???)
M as in Mancy (I swear I heard this and the CSR then corrected himself to “Man…M as in Man”
N as in Knock
Q as in Barbecue
S as in Skin
S as in Stupid (this was a disgruntled customer)
U as in Youtube

I would suggest using the NATO alphabet. There's a reason it's a standard. If you decide against it, just be consistent, pick good words for letters, and know them by heart so you don't have to cast around for "M as in Mancy."
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:39 AM on August 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

In telephone tech support situations I tend to use NATO—most everyone can understand it, and odds are non-zero that you're talking to a vet, a ham, a pilot, sailor, a scout, a first responder, or just someone who's watched a lot of war movies. If they don't grok it, I fall back to common names and nouns like P-as-in-Peter, U-as-in-Umbrella.
posted by mumkin at 11:43 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I used to do phone support and I swear I've never heard the Western Union phonetic alphabet. If I'd gotten "I as in Ida" on the phone I'd have been real confused. It definitely wasn't in any kind of common use. The general advice you're getting to go with NATO sounds right to me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:57 AM on August 5, 2019

I was spelling out my MAC address to some support guy on the phone, and I resorted to "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot" and his mind was blown. This was a game changer for him. He asked me to stop so that he could write it down.

This was just a couple of years ago and he sounded fairly young. I'm not saying that it's the only way to go and there may be "better" ones out there, but it worked flawlessly.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:58 AM on August 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I go with NATO/ITU/ICAO. At least one software company, that I’m aware of, uses it as their standard.
posted by SillyShepherd at 12:41 PM on August 5, 2019

I have a long, difficult-to-spell name, and I also have people spelling things out to me at work on the regular, and I strongly recommend simple first names and nouns. I have literally never had anyone use the NATO spelling, and I would personally be annoyed if they did. Also, I would never expect international customer service reps to be familiar with it either. IMHO, it also reads as pretentious. I vote for: A is in Apple, B as in Boy... D as in Dog... R as in Robert...
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 12:47 PM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

"M as in 'Mancy'" is a joke from Archer, FYI.

I do the Nato alphabet, only the extended version. So it's "C as in Charlie, aych as in hotel, R as in romeo, i as in India, S as in Sierra" instead of machine-gunning "Charlie Hotel Romeo India Sierra" which will almost always get a whiskey tango foxtrot in response.

Everyone who deals in mixed alphanumeric part numbers appreciates it.
posted by notsnot at 12:52 PM on August 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

I would go with using names alphabet...I once spelled out my address to customer service and my mail came to me addressed:

My Name
Apartment 3 Bee As In Boy
City, State, Zip Code
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 12:59 PM on August 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have done a lot of password resets by phone, and when giving my name or address, I try to be efficient. Not all letters need the phonetic distinguisher. The ones that really do are B-D-P-T, F-S, M-N. If someone is hard of hearing or otherwise having trouble, I use names or US Military. When I was working telephone tech support, I kept a printed list at my desk. And, yes, T as in Tango, H as in Hippo, E as in Echo, O as in Oscar, R as in Romeo, A as in Alpha, numeral 5, numeral 5 again.

Many people just have trouble listening, It's not you.
posted by theora55 at 1:26 PM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

One tip that has helped me a lot in life (short surname but non-obvious spelling): Do NOT say your name before spelling it. If you do say it, people will hear your name and their brains will automatically start trying to figure out how to spell it themselves, so that by the time you actually start spelling it out letter by letter, you are "crashing into" their preconceptions.

Instead, just start spelling your name when asked for it. Sometimes I will say my name after I'm done spelling it because it's so short that people otherwise don't realize I'm done.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 1:41 PM on August 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

I too have a long and confusing name (see below, and that's just my first name.) I tend to say my name quickly so they have an idea of how to say it and what it is. Then I very slowly say each letter, careful to enunciate clearly and give a pause between each letter and often grouping in about 3 letters between a bit of a longer pause.
(Yeah, it's Crystalinne. That's C - R - Y --- S - T - A --- L - I ---- N - N - E )

If they are confused about a letter I go to what you would generally see in a kindergarten classroom - C like Cat, etc. However, I've practiced this dance enough that it seems I speak clearly and slowly enough that people understand me. If I'm not confident they got it right, I ask them to say it back to me. (And if you think my name is simple, you'd be amazed at the array of spellings I've gotten.)
posted by Crystalinne at 4:15 PM on August 5, 2019

G as in 'laugh"
P as in 'pterodactyl'

Just go with NATO, they've already done all the work making sure none of the exemplar words sound like any other letter's word. (like bat/vat) Although, the one you might consider switching is kay-BECK. It's perfectly distinctive once you know what it is but I sometimes get a "as in what?".
posted by ctmf at 4:29 PM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The cockney alphabet is not your friend, but I just had to 'eave it in 'ere.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 6:37 PM on August 5, 2019

I have literally never had anyone use the NATO spelling, and I would personally be annoyed if they did. Also, I would never expect international customer service reps to be familiar with it either. IMHO, it also reads as pretentious.

The NATO alphabet was spearheaded by the United Nations, uses words from multiple languages, and was accepted by 31 countries after testing. It's the most widely used spelling alphabet in the world, and the chances of someone in another country understanding it are probably at least slightly greater than using words or pronunciations that are potentially exclusive to one's own language. It's not perfect by any means but it's been used for years by people who need to communicate clearly with others around the globe when talking about the latin alphabet. Bonus: you don't have to have memorized the NATO alphabet to understand what is meant when someone says "P as in PAPA" or "O as in OSCAR".
posted by oneirodynia at 6:47 PM on August 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

As others have said: I recommend using the NATO alphabet, but saying “X as in X-ray, A as in Alpha…” rather than just saying “X-ray Alpha…” That way people who don’t already know it still get what you are trying to do.

(Airline reps in particular will know the NATO alphabet, in my experience. But “[letter] as in [NATO alphabet word]” will work for everyone.)
posted by snowmentality at 7:04 PM on August 5, 2019

...."s" as in marine corps, and "t" as in ballet.
posted by 20 year lurk at 8:16 PM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a difficult to spell Asian language name and I spell it out using common country names e.g. A as in "Australia", C as in "Canada", F as in "France".
posted by whitelotus at 6:13 AM on August 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

My standard approach is to just go for it using the f as in foxtrot pattern. Agree with others this is better than harsh shift to whiskey tango foxtrot.

But then I pause for a sec to gauge if the listener is grokking it.

If not, no big deal, could be any number of good reasons. In that case, I just default to easily recognizable common nouns. Boy. Dog. Etc. Also works fine.

The whole Yankee Hotel Foxtrot game seems more more aesthetically pleasing and fun, and I feel kinda cool busting it out, so that’s why I use it. But if it’s telephone customer service and I can tell this person is busy and on the clock, I go straight to short, fast, and easy.

Situation specific, I guess, more than hard and fast rule, seems to work for me.

Also like the country names ideas above!
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 7:08 PM on August 6, 2019

I make it up on the fly, usually with common American first names.

Not all letters need the phonetic distinguisher. The ones that really do are B-D-P-T, F-S, M-N.

Yup, and I have a lot of these in my name, first and last. My first name is not super common and sort of rhymes with some other names that were common before my generation. I also have a long, Polish, last name, where the last letter should be i (or a, in my case, but I digress), but is y because my grandfather anglicized it himself, so I also have the I-Y issue, both because they rhyme and because people really want "ski" Polish names to end in i. I always use "Y as in yellow." It's funny, because my name is actually spelled just like it sounds (I'm not Wojo).

I strongly recommend simple first names and nouns.
I do a lot of Sam, Nancy and Tom, but for some reason I always use Boy for B.

Do NOT say your name before spelling it.
I say it, but super quickly, like "Wojciechowski - I'll spell it..." (still not Wojo).
posted by Pax at 5:15 PM on August 10, 2019

I strongly recommend simple first names and nouns.
I do a lot of Sam, Nancy and Tom, but for some reason I always use Boy for B.

Ditto. I use all of these. And I only do the letters that are most difficult to distinguish as theora55 mentioned above.

I also say my name, followed by "spelled..." and immediately spell it, but my last name is only two syllables so that probably helps. I find it very difficult when people start spelling their names without having said it first because, especially if it's a long name I've never encountered before, I don't know when it's going to end and I struggle to follow and it starts to sound like a stream of random letters with no predictable arc. So they end up having to spell it for me twice.
posted by acidnova at 12:55 AM on August 12, 2019

IMHO, it also reads as pretentious.

One time, using the NATO alphabet to recite an airline record locator, the agent I was speaking with asked me if I was military, so I tend to doubt most people familiar with it find it pretentious.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:17 PM on August 12, 2019

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