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Can you get that, please?

The phone rings at work and you have to answer it. How does it make you feel?

This question comes up a lot in our workshops with home and international nurses.

Answering the phone in a workplace that is often noisy and busy can be stressful for anybody but if you’re working in a second or third language, receiving phone calls can be particularly challenging.

Let’s begin with the technical issues – an unclear line, buzzing or crackling and just being unable to hear the speaker clearly. All of these can make it harder for the L2 listener (whose first language isn’t English) to pick out key words and focus on the conversation. Interjecting the call with ‘Sorry, I didn’t get that’ or ‘Sorry, I just lost you’ or even ‘’You’re really faint, can you speak up please?’ can be hard phrases to use in a professional situation. Also, the lack of visual clues can make phone calls even more stressful - those facial expressions or gestures that help you understand a conversation just aren’t there.

But on top of that, there are so many more things to consider. Phone calls are scary because of the unpredictability of them. Not knowing when a phone call is going to take place and what it will be about (context) – can mean the receiver is unprepared. If that person is engrossed in another task the incoming phone call means that person has to shift focus quickly and for L2 colleagues, this might also mean, switching to a second language. Many phone calls require instant answers so the receiver is having to respond and react very quickly in a second language and this can often leave them feeling anxious.

The environment the call takes place in can also impede clear communication. The usual workplace distractions of background chatter, pagers, loudspeaker announcements and machinery can affect a person’s focus and understanding. With so much going on it’s also harder to contribute to the conversation.

And finally, the emotional impact of all of this. Many L2 speakers experience high levels of anxiety, possibly embarrassment and even fear before they pick up that phone.

So if English is your first language, and you work in a culturally and linguistic environment, be aware of this. Understanding the fear that often surrounds phone conversations will make you a more empathetic communicator.

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