Hello? Your Au Pair needs good “phone manners”

by cv harquail on June 25, 2009

I just got off the phone with the au pair of one of my friends, and I had two serious problems during the call.

Neither problem was caused by the au pair’s still-limited English. Both of these problems were cause by bad phone manners.

Said another way, the problems would not even have occurred if the au pair had better phone manners.au on the phone.jpg

Phone manners, you ask?

Aren’t those a quaint vestige of simpler times, when people were courteous and respectful? No, darnit, phone manners are a simple, hip, cool trend sweeping the nation, as au pairs (and frankly, their host families) begin to understand just how useful phone manners can be.

Problem One:
The au pair answered the phone with just one word, “Hello?”.

This would have been fine, except I didn’t know if it was the au pair or my girlfriend! So, what should I have replied?

#1 “Hi Laura, this is CV”
#2 “Hi, this is CV, is this Laura?”
#3 “Hi, this is CV, may I please speak to Laura”?
#4 “Can Mary come over for a playdate?”

The correct answer– NONE of the above!

The au pair should have identified herself as not being the host mom.

Problem Two:
For the life of me, I can’t remember how to pronounce this au pair’s name.
..okay, I’m not even sure I remember her name correctly. So, should I ask:

#1 “Who is this?”
#2 “Is this the au pair?”
#3 “Can you please tell me your name again?”
#4 “Can Mary come over for a playdate?”

The correct answer– NONE of the above!

The au pair should have offered me her name.

Here is the polite, welcoming, and courteous way that an au pair should answer your home phone:

“Hi, this is the hostfamilyname’s residence/phone/family. This is AuPairName. How may I help you?

At our house, it’s “Hi, this is the Harquail family, Clara speaking. How may I help you?”

And yes, my kids answer the phone this way too. The ONLY people who answer the phone with a simple “hello” are the host family parents. Not having to identify yourself immediately is a privilege reserved for the heads-of-household.

Call me old fashioned, but good phone manners make a difference.

They show concern and attention to the caller, offer important information, and begin the conversation in a way that makes things easiest for both parties.


Franzi June 25, 2009 at 3:53 pm

so did you ask your friend for her APs name?? ;-)

i think this is something that can easily be talked about during the first week. some families mind if their name is being mentioned when answering the phone, so using your lines might not be in everyone’s interest.
actually, while talking about phone manners you can also mention those call center people who call because of surveys or because they try to sell stuff whatever. the AP should not give out sensitive information such as how many people live in the house etc! keep in mind that surveys like these are very unusual in some countries and some girls are just generally very friendly to anyone who calls not thinking about that this might be a scam.

Corinna June 25, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I agree with Franzi.
My hostfamily never said something about rules how to answer the phone, so the first few times I said just a hello as well but actually it was kind of bothering to me that everybody thought that they were taling to my hostmum so I decided to answer the phone with “Hello, this is Corinna”

Rita June 25, 2009 at 5:59 pm

CV, the way you expected the au pair to answer the phone is too formal. I used to be an exchange student in USA and I really had phone problems, I didn’t know what was I supposed to say, of course I can answer it in my own language, but it was really different in english, and MANY people would not understand my accent and I had to repeat over and over again! And I really got embarassed every time, So I start avoid phones! You should give her a try, and let her learn by herself, so she won’t get embarassed and avoid phones like I did

NewAPMom June 25, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Rita, I see your point, but from a HM point of view… Our friends and family have actually stopped calling us because they are confused about who they’re talking to for the reason CV mentioned, and because there is such a language barrier with our au pair. So I’ve actually asked our au pair not to answer the land line unless she knows it’s for her (by looking at caller ID.) We provide a cell phone so she can give out that number to people, and practice her phone skills all she wants there.

Busy Mom June 25, 2009 at 8:20 pm

We don’t have our AP answer our phone. We provide a separate land line (unlimited local use) with answering machine and a cell phone (with limited minutes), so her friends can always get in touch with her. We do ask that she listen to the messages on our answering machine in case it’s something relevant to the girls on that day – e.g., cancelled playdate.

AP June 25, 2009 at 8:28 pm

When I answer the phone (which I only do when it shows who is calling, and only after several rings, because often my HD picks up the phone in his in-home office), I usually answer with “[Hostfamily]’s residence, hello!”. I think this is clear enough to let the caller know that I am NOT my HM.
I agree with Rita, to me your proposed way seems too formal (if someone that I called answered that way, I would feel like talking to a hotel receptionist ;) Just my personal opinion).
When I see that it’s my HM or HD calling, I usually just answer with “hello” or “hello [HM/HD]” because of course they know that I know it’s them, and I guess they don’t have any difficulties figuring out who I am ;)

chithu June 25, 2009 at 11:41 pm

hi, did you tell her (aka taught her) how to answer the phone? sometimes au pairs are clueless. in my case, i didn’t know that i was supposed to keep empty jam jars from fridge/larder outside so that the HP can buy new ones. They just assumed that it is common sense and I would know. Simple communication gap! So please tell your AP how you want it to be done :)

Abyy June 26, 2009 at 12:24 am

I think that this is pretty formal – I think that 99% of people (here) answer with “hello” – in fact, we always had fun w our au pair when she did answer the phone as “xxx family” and she stopped doing it – she said it was a difference between here and her home country and she wanted to learn how things are done here. I don’t think it’s out of line for the caller to ask who they are speaking to or to ask for who they want. When my parents visit, my mum and I always get mixed up on the phone but I wouldn’t want her to answer in any other way but “hello”. Ditto for our AP.
“Hello” states the AP
“Hi this is Abby – who’s this” or “may I speak to X’ or “is this X’ or…..(similar to your answer #3 above).
Maybe I’m too relaxed. Although admittedly an AP would never get close to my credit card (there, now I don’t have to respond to the other post!)

CV June 26, 2009 at 8:55 am

Abby, AP & Rita —

I understand that you think this specific ‘script’ is too formal… and it may be in some cultures but not in others. Phone manners, and manners in general, are specific to their cultures and social groups/classes. The point of ‘manners’ is to make things easier for others by being considerate in advance, and using routines to make considerate behavior easier. As the caller, it puts me in an awkward position not to know who has answered the family phone, and it is simple for the person answering the phone to identify herself. Also, as a caller, it is not my job to know the names of all the people in the household who might answer. This is the case in ‘my’ culture, where parents are treated differently from children, strangers treated differently from intimates, where (somewhat) more formality is a signal of respect and not coldness.

There are other things that an au pair or child can do to identify him or herself as ‘not the parent’ without sounding like a hotel clerk or giving out too much info (e.g., some families don’t want the kids to give out their names.) Also, there are ways to answer and share some information in a tone of voice that is warm and welcoming, and not robotic like the person at the burger king drive thru.

Many people don’t know how to be considerate and polite, and even more don’t bother to make the effort. Our challenge as parents and host parents is to teach our families to be considerate of others and to facilitate good interpersonal interactions. Exactly ‘how’ you do it is class and culture-bound, but the reason to do it is pretty universal.

Host Mom VA June 26, 2009 at 10:54 am

I think as long as their english is clear and they take messages alright and are not rude I do not have a problem with how they answer the phone. Mine speaks fluent english and we do have other issues but she takes messages well.

Calif Mom June 26, 2009 at 11:06 am

I never thought of this issue, but it will go into my guidelines and be a topic for discussion at my next weekly meeting with AP. Perhaps my neglect on this is the reason why our APs have never routinely answered the phone! It is not often a problem, because frankly I’m an emailer myself rather than a phone person so not too many people even try to us by phone (low hearing).

However, that lack of answering is really frustrating when I’m trying to get a hold of people when I know they’re at the house. Current AP does check the caller ID and picks up–sometimes–when it’s us. But there are times when I’m at a different office, and the phone number may not be familiar so she doesn’t pick up and I start having a long dialogue with the dog (whom I know is listening dutifully, he’s such a good boy) while hoping someone will hear me talking to the dog, wonder what the heck’s going on in the office, and pick up the phone.

I think I will propose this line: “Family Name residence (or “house”, since residence is a hard word to pronounce), this is AuPair”. That does the trick and is friendly sounding but clear. (And yes, I’m from Calif and tend to cringe at anything that verges on icy formality. Sometimes stereotypes are built on truth!)

I agree completely with CV that manners are important and often not the priority they should be in the states these days. Preventable email gaffes, parking lot duels for a single space, drivers who refuse to let you merge when you’re all going 5 mph anyway… the examples are endless. My kids only answer the phone if they know it’s me or Dad. I suppose at some point I will have to relinquish this, but it’s not their job to answer the phone. They are not mature enough (eldest is 4th grader) to handle the variety of requests that might come in. Not to mention telemarketers (the bulk of our incoming calls).

DCMom June 26, 2009 at 12:13 pm

While I am definitely sympathetic to the desire to teach manners, I do not feel that it is rude or remiss to avoid identifying who has answered the phone, at least in the first instance. I agree one should always be polite, but I don’t see that it is necessary to be “considerate in advance” when it comes to phone interactions. As a caller it may not be your job to know who might be answering, but as a recipient of a call, it’s not my or my au pair’s job to give out personal information when she or I may not know the reason for your call. After all, it is the caller who is requesting an audience!

I personally prefer that our au pairs answer “hello” rather than use our family name or her own. In part, this is because my husband and I have different last names, so responding this way can be awkward. But it is most important for me to avoid distributing information to someone who is either trying to sell something or may be generally up to no good. Unfortunately, it is surprising how often this happens. Particularly with au pairs whose English isn’t perfect, I find it’s sometimes tough for them to cut off conversations with telemarketers and the like. In my opinion, giving out a name makes it easier for such people to pretend a familiarity that they might not have and take advantage.

I have always discussed how I’d like our au pair to answer the phone, and really have had no troubles at all with friends finding their responses to be awkward or rude (and I do believe they’d tell me). We discuss how to politely inquire about who is calling and how to take a proper message.

As CV points out, it is important to facilitate interpersonal relations and to show respect for others. However, even Americans who might be of the same class can disagree on what constitutes considerate and polite. in this instance I disagree with with the view that putting the onus on the recipient of a call to make identification easier for the caller is somehow more courteous than a hello followed by polite assistance once the called has been identified.

AnnaAuPair June 26, 2009 at 7:53 pm

My hostfamily doesn’t have a land line, so I generally just answer with “hello” – who ever calls my cellphone should know whom their calling because no one else uses my cellphone.
IF they had a land line I would answer with “hostfamily, Anna speaking” because I too think that the caller should know that it’s me and not my hostparents.

kat December 15, 2009 at 10:35 am

Agree with DCMum. Phone manners may be different in different cultures or with different induviduals. In my culture it is up to the caller to say who they are and who they wish to speak to. Cant see the reason why the caller shoud know who they speak to before introducing themselves. the callers know were they are calling so the range of people picking up the phone is limited where as the recipient doesnt have a clue who is calling as it could be anyone in the whole wide world.
I absolutely hate when I pick the phone (with a ‘name of the business they run’+hello) in homes of families I work for and the caller whooffs ‘who’s that?!’ and always think ‘well it would help if you tell me who your are and what you want’.

Sara Duke December 15, 2009 at 11:23 am

I think, in this day and age of phishing, that answering the telephone with a simple, “Hello” is appropriate. However, my pet peeve is au pairs who ring my house and simply say “Hello.” If you’re calling my house I want you to identify yourself, “Hello, this X is Y there?”

We insist that our au pair answer the telephone because sometimes my daughter has medical emergencies at school that require an immediate response. However, their ability to take a variety of messages varies. Some have asked non-emergency callers to ring back and leave a message. My son who is 9 and starting to pick up the phone, mistakenly thought he could just put it down and the caller could leave a message for me, having seen our current au pair do it! I had to explain what she did to make the message happen and that he was expected to find a pen and piece of paper and to write out the message if he was answering the phone. (We’re trying to get our current au pair to do the same, but her receptive telephone English is minimal – no body clues to help with the interpretation – and the caller often founds it frustrating to repeat things over and over and often offers to call back and leave a message.)

Jane December 15, 2009 at 3:26 pm

My au pair’s friends call and simply say hello or start to talk in a foreign language right away when I pick up the home phone. It is quickly becoming my biggest pet peeve too. It’s my house, so I answer with a “hello,” expecting the caller to identify themselves and ask for the person they wish to speak with. This was never a problem with our previous au pair’s friends, but this year, everyone thinks I am the au pair answering, because they just start talking right away without even checking (which is curious, as I have an American accent and she does not).

I’ve asked my au pair to please remind her friends that they are calling my home phone, not her cell phone, so they should expect me to answer and they need to ask for her. Sometimes I even directly remind the girls of this when they just start talking, and they simply say–yes, I know it’s the home phone–no apologies. Never thought this would get to me, but now after a few months, it does!

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