First Day, First Problem, First Opportunity: The $48 phone call

by cv harquail on September 4, 2010

Dear AuPairMom,

Our au pair has been with us for less than 24 hours and we already have a problem.

We have our au pair use a phone card attached to our phone to make long distance calls. Since she’d just arrived, when she wanted to call home I dialed her dad’s number for her. Right after that call, I heard a pause and went to check with her. She had dialed directly another phone call… it was 12 minutes long, at $3.99 a minute.

Unfortunately, she was using my husband’s WORK cell phone.

This happened first thing this morning — she slept all day yesterday so we hadn’t asked her to read our family handbook yet. Needless to say I’ll be having her finish reading it today…

PS, DH isn’t home so I haven’t even told him yet, and I”m sure he’ll be super happy to have to tell his boss!

Ugh. What the heck do I do?? — Off On The Wrong Foot


What a way to start out your au pair year!

An awkward situation, a not-insignificant amount of money, and enough embarrassment for everyone.

How can you turn this one around?

Off On The Wrong Foot, I recommend that you think about handling this issue as an opportunity.

How you handle this situation can set a positive tone for the rest of the year. You can show your au pair how you and your DH will approach future mistakes, concerns and problems by treating this situation in a kind, forgiving way. Plus, you and your DH can use the situation to clarify with each other how you together will approach au pair-related challenges. And, you can learn from this experience how to improve your phone systems so that you can avoid this particular problem in the future.

1. Think about the ‘big picture’ of your Au Pair – Host Parent relationship

You want your au pair relationship to be strong, positive, respectful and a learning experience for your au pair and for you as a host parent. Each of the several steps you should consider need to move you and your au pair towards these goals. Take a little time to put yourself in a kind, empathic and forgiving mindset. Imagine how you’d like your au pair to feel when you’re done resolving this problem.

Also, consider the balance you want to strike between being firm and being laid back. Our general advice is to start firm and get flexible later, so you might not want to be completely forgiving and tell her you’ll cover the cost of this.

2. Consider what resolution(s) you need, from your Au Pair

  • How much money do you want her to pay you back (Half? All? None?)
  • What do you want her to understand about phone costs? (All hers? Some budget from you?)
  • What does she need to learn about US phone technology? (cards, pre-paid phones, land-line long distance charges, Skype)
  • What does she need to learn about your family’s phones? (Never use DH’s cell phone, but Host Mom’s cell is okay. Don’t use the phone in Host Mom’s office even on the family line, etc.)

3. Think ahead about the process that you want to model for problem solving.

What does she need to learn about how you like to discuss problems? Do you like to talking things out directly and candidly, or indirectly with a written note? Are you flexible about considering options or are you firm about how things need to be resolved? Can you take time to consider options or are you more comfortable deciding by the end of the conversation?

4. Think ahead about what to take into account about your au pair before and during your conversation.


Consider her English fluency, cultural background, personality (as much as you now so far), and interaction with you so far.

5. Reconsider your Au Pair phone systems

Think about whether the phone systems that you thought would work (or that worked with previous au pairs) needs to be adjusted. It may be time to switch to a prepaid phone for your au pair, and/or to make sure that you have a long-distance carrier with the lowest possible rates to her home country.

With every au pair challenge, there are three sets of outcomes:

  1. The specific resolution
  2. The change in your systems & approach (aka “the learning”)
  3. The influence on your host family-au pair relationship

Keep all of these in mind.

Readers, what else?

Pay Phone DSC01636 from JazzCannibal on Flickr
Life Up Close: Pay Phone from 5150photo


NY Hostmom September 5, 2010 at 8:35 am

What a fun way to begin your year with your new aupair! I would tell her that since she just arrived and wants to check in with family back home, you’re happy to cover the cost of that first call. I would then let her know that in the future she will be responsible for paying for her long distance calls and at this rate, making four such calls in a week will use up all of her stipend for the week- probably not good budgeting! Skype is a “free” way to communicate with family and friends back home. (I point out that while skype itself is free, the internet access, modem, and computer are certainly not free for the host family) Certainly establish expectations quickly so that you don’t feel taken advantage of and so that she know what is expected of her.

2boys2girls September 5, 2010 at 11:30 am

I also support paying for this call – and then going over the phone policy in detail.
We had a similar situation our first weekend with one of our APs where an AP friend of hers in another state across the country told her that because the phones their respective HPs gave them were with the same company, all of the calls they made to each other were free! Wouldn’t that be great! ;)
This was certainly NOT the case and our AP used up the $75 we had preloaded onto the AP cell phone (usually that amount on the AP cell phone lasted about six months)…
Our AP was very upset at first when we explained this to her as she clearly thought we were going to be angry. We laughed it off, shared stories about times we had misunderstood something (like when I filled my first apartment’s dishwasher with laundry detergent instead of dish detergent) and sat down with our handbook and went over the phone instructions.
Chalking this up to “adjusting” to a new household, not focusing on the money (which our AP offered to repay), and making this a chance to model how we were going to react and communicate about misunderstandings (because there will be more!) was well worth the $75.

MTR September 5, 2010 at 11:31 am

I don’t know what to suggest to be honest. To be honest, I would not want to cover this phone call myself, but do not see any other way out of it. It is understandable that au pair did not know how to use the phone and how much it costs. It is also clear that hosts did not make it clear to her upfront. When the fist phone call was made, au pair may not have realize that phone card was used (especially if the host dialed phone card number from memory). Au pair may have thought that the a direct number was dialed and did not think it was a big deal to dial another number.

This is one of the reasons why I share my handbook with au pairs prior to their coming to our family. I share parts about rules and schedules and expectations before we match and then after the match I share parts about how the house is run, the car/cell/computer use, who pays for what, etc. We also have direct international calling blocked on our house phone. I think this situation is a good study guide to other host parents to know to cover these things before au pairs arrival.

Melissa September 5, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I agree with the comments that it is probably best just to pay for it yourself, but be sure to thoroughly explain how to make international calls and the costs associated with it, as well as what your expectations are (phone card, use her cell phone only, etc.). This is hopefully just an example of miscommunication and her not understanding how things work and just chalk it up to being in a new country. Hopefully this is not a sign that she doesn’t really give much consideration to the best way to handle things. How she responds to your conversation may be a good indicator – if she feels bad and offers to pay for it herself, that’s a good sign. If she doesn’t seem to ‘get it’ or care, well… you might have some more of these issues come up. good luck!

Taking a Computer Lunch September 5, 2010 at 2:35 pm

The first weeks with a new AP are the hardest – they not only have to adjust to living in a new country, thinking and speaking a new language all the time, but they also have to adjust to your rules. And, you have to learn to live with them (and if you’ve already had an AP, you realize that you’re going back to square one all of a sudden). Personally, I think a grace period to allow for mistakes, permits HF time to figure out how this new relationship is going to play out.

The handbook is a good place to spell out complicated items, like telephones. (And to warn your phone-happy APs that all is not free!) One of the longer sections in our handbook (aside from The Camel’s medical issues) is the use of the phones. Before every AP had an email account, brought their own laptop, or used Skype, they all knew how to use a phone calling card. Not so any more. I no longer take it for granted, and sit down and explain to them a) all the steps and b) not to dial like they are texting so the computer can handle it.

The bottom line – absorb the cost – no AP should pay for an innocent mistake the first time it happens (at least one that doesn’t damage property or dent your paycheck beyond your ability to afford it). Politely explain that you are willing to cover the cost this time, but do warn her that if it were to happen again, you will work out a payment plan with her.

Shana Medah September 5, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I agree that this is a great opportunity for everyone to learn something. I don’t know where you au pair if from, but if she’s calling someplace that costs $3.99 a minute, there’s a pretty good chance she comes from someplace where the phone system is a LOT different than here. I see a couple of issues that could come into play. First, when you talk with her, ask her first what she understands about how the phone works and how much it costs, etc. You’ll get a quick picture of the assumptions under which she’s operating. From there you can describe what’s different and how the differences affect how people use the phone (using a calling card vs. calling direct, budgeting minutes, etc.). I showed this posting to my DH, who is from Burkina Faso, a small country in West Africa, and he pointed out right away that in Burkina, people have the idea that since everyone has a phone here (which is NOT the case there), phones must be really cheap. They don’t understand that phones are a necessity, and nothing gets done here without one. Your au pair may have a similar idea.

A second issue is the idea of “personal” property. In countries that are more group-oriented than the US, sharing personal belongings, and using someone else’s (meaning a friend or family member’s) belongings without asking permission is the norm. It’s understood that what’s mine is your and what’s yours is mine, and it’s not necessary to ask. If you offered her the phone to use, she may have understood that it was OK to use it for any call, not just a call to her family. You may also want to discuss which phone it’s OK to use and the fact that if someone lends you something here (not just a phone), it’s understood that, unless the person explicitly says otherwise, the offer is a one-time-only deal to help you out.

Finally, there is the issue of apologizing. Obviously, this “learning opportunity” is not cheap for you, and if I had done such a thing, I would be very apologetic. After all is settled, you may be expecting your au pair to apologize for the expense that she has caused you. Be aware that the infractions that require apologies differ from culture to culture. Don’t be surprised if you au pair doesn’t apologize in the way that you might be expecting (either a lot more or a lot less).

Shana Medah
Co-Founder and Director of Training
Jamana Intercultural

Off on the wrong foot September 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm

I think we are all moving forward. She’s dealing with it being ‘too’ hot here (she didn’t believe me the many times we had used skype to talk before she came, almost daily, that where we are is not the same as in other parts of the US where her friend is an au pair, or cousin in the Boston area… She understands now the phone, and then we went over the handbook. We’ll cover this cost, but WOW, was HD not happy to find out he gets to tell this to his boss since it wasn’t our personal phone. Our handbook does specifically go over the phone calls/use/option for skype, but she had indicated her family/home doesn’t have it, so I had, when the first call was made, let her know that we use phone card, but I don’t think that was a word she understood.

Could this be a 5 minute thing that is gone over in au pair school? I mean, reading through, it seems like it could be a brief thing they discuss – “calling home is expensive, be sure to ask your host family how to make sure it doesn’t cost 1/4 of your stipend to call home for a few minutes…”

This too shall pass :)

Taking a Computer Lunch September 5, 2010 at 10:21 pm

It could have been, and quite frankly, all the APs are too shell-shocked to remember every word that is said, in English, in orientation. We encourage our APs to call home the first morning they are here, and until the arrival of AP #5, the phone card ($10, left on the desk in the AP room), was never an issue.

We now know (since we have to be in the house anyway), to say, “If you have a problem using the phone card, we’d be happy to help.” But it’s a verbal offer. I’m the one who calls, DH can’t make it work either. (I remember spending $100 to call my parents to tell them DH and I had got engaged in Moscow 20 years ago – anything that costs less is an improvement!)

The first few weeks are always an issue – there is simply to much information to absorb for it simply to come from reading or from listening. As a HP I find that yogic breathing helps – remember it won’t be long before it’s old hat and that raw newness of everything wears off!

(I have a new AP, too. And yes, I dialed the phone card for her, but she also has Skype.) After one week it already doesn’t seem so new :-)

OnceAnAuPair September 6, 2010 at 1:54 am

I say, pay for this and explain to her how the phone card works, how expensive it is to use the cell phone, etc etc. Also if she has good internet access and a private, quiet place that she can skype, show her how to use it too. I live in Switzerland and communicate often with my family via Skype, especially when I was an au pair. The only time I use my cell phone to talk to my family back in the US is in emergency situations or via text messaging sometimes. The first couple days of being an au pair are hard, cut her some slack on the phone bill this first time.

Used to be an AP September 6, 2010 at 4:08 pm

When you go over the phone rules, also tell your APs that you usually also have to pay for incoming calls (if that’s still the way it is) in the US, because there are countries where that is not the case, even if it is the same company. (Such as T-Mobile. I had to pay for incoming calls in the States, and I also use T-Mobile in Germany where I do not have to pay for incoming calls (I think charging for incoming calls is not allowed in Germany but I am not sure)).

AP once September 7, 2010 at 9:56 am

Skype is the best way at all…

Former AP September 15, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Please remember to tell your APs that phones also get charged when you are being called! That’s not the way it works in Europe and I sometimes found it frustrating. My parents would call my cellphone during the day (evening in Europe) and I would be nervous about the phone bill.

Mamame September 28, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Just a quick note…. Metro-PCS is become a large US cell phone company. We plan on providing our AP with a cell phone (for my peace of mind while shes out of the house). Its unlimited talk, text and web… but also: Advantages of Unlimited International Calling*
* Unlimited calling to friends and family to over 1,000 destinations in 100 countries.
* Dial direct from your MetroPCS phone without using an 800 number and entering PINs.
If you are in one of their service areas, this might help also.

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