Speaking on the phone in a foreign language can be a challenging task. For one thing, your missing all the non-verbal clues that often help us understand what’s being communicated, facial expressions, body language, etc. In addition, the lower audio signal quality that characterizes communication by phone — while not presenting major obstacles to native speakers — can make a different to learners, who often engage in a kind of top-down processing of input — analyzing each and every sound — in order to figure out what’s being said. Finally, phone calls have a certain ritual that may be unfamiliar in a second language, formulaic expressions that native speakers are used to hearing during a phone call, but that can throw you for a loop if you’re not expecting them. And if you’re talking to customer service, servicio al cliente, or technical support, soporte técnico, the representative’s fast speed may be present additional comprehension problems.
Outdoor exercise machines, Iztacalco, Mexico City
Here’s some typical telephone language that you should be expecting and ready for.
Mexicans usually answer their personal phone with ¡Bueno!, said with either a falling intonation or a rising, question-like one. A few speakers — let’s be charitable and not call them pretentious — answer with the European ¡Dígame!
A business, however, will probably answer with Buenos días or Buenas tardes, followed by the name of either the business or the person answering.
¿Con quién tengo el gusto?
If you’re calling customer service, at some early point in the conversation you’ll probably hear ¿Con quién tengo el gusto? What’s your name? Literally, with whom do I have the pleasure (of speaking)? You need to be ready for this question, because it will be said very fast and it is a departure from the way you would be asked for your name in typical face-to-face situations (with llamarse or nombre).
To respond, I recommend speaking your name slowly, with a pronunciation that corresponds to Spanish spelling. You may need to specify your nombre(s) separately from your apellido(s), indicating which is which. This will help them to find you in the database.
When giving your customer information, you may hear a curiously enthusiastic response: ¡Correcto! This doesn’t mean that the representative is confirming the accuracy of your information, only that they have heard it.
¿En qué le puedo ayudar?
This means: How can help you? How can I be of service. At this point, launch slowly into describing the purpose of your call. I recommending giving some thought before you place the call to think about how you want to explain your situation in a simple way. You’ll get better at doing this instinctively over time, but until then, take a moment to plan out the major comments you want to make and think about what language you’ll use to do that.
If the representative needs to put you on hold, you may be asked to espere en línea, please wait on the line, or no cuelgue, don’t hang up.
Near the end of the call, you’ll probably hear another generic rapid-fire question: ¿Hay algo más en qué le pueda ayudar? Is there anything else I can help you with? A simply reply of No, eso es todo is standard.
At some point, you may realize that you’re not understanding something important that has been said. When this happens, don’t panic. Pause, refocus, and then make some kind of statement requesting clarification. ¿Entonces, ya quedó desbloqueda mi tarjeta? ¿O todavía no? And wait for the response. This is better than simply saying, “Could you repeat that?”, which often results in hearing the same incomprehensible script again.
I recommend speaking slowly, slower than you do in face-to-face circumstances. Although the representative already realizes from your name and accent that you are a foreigner, unless they have a lot of experience with foreigners, they probably can’t shift gears and accomodate you by consciously speak more slowly, more simply, or more clearly. Even asking them to speak more slowly may not yield results. But in my experience, if you speak slowly, they may adjust their speech rate subconsciously to match yours to a certain extent. If you get a representative you truly can’t understand, despite your best attempts at repairing the communication, just hang up and try again. Chances are that another speaker will be more comprehensible to you.
Customer Service in English
Some large companies, especially those with an international presence, may offer customer service in English. If you’re dealing with an important problem, it’s tempting to thing that the interaction will go more smoothly in English. However, in many cases you won’t get a native English speaker but rather a native Spanish speaker who is “bilingual” but whose English skills may be poorer than your Spanish ones. For this reason, I recommend sticking to Spanish. If nothing else, it’s a good opportunity to practice your Spanish in a challenging, high-stakes situation. If you do this often enough, one day you’ll be able to call customer service in Spanish without breaking a sweat.
One more thing: the automated attendant phone menu may ask you to press the tecla gato. That’s the pound/hash key: #. The star key is asterisco.