Sometimes, It’s Best to Talk it Out: When to Pick Up the Phone

May 12, 2017 | Ian S. Port

Between email, text, Slack, and whatever other digital communication tools your company uses, there are lots of ways to get in touch with coworkers and clients these days. But according to communication experts, modern professionals — especially younger ones — too often overlook the usefulness of a much older tool: the telephone.

Simple voice communication might seem outdated, or even intimidating, but it is still tremendously effective, experts say. In an age where everyone is swamped with a mountain of email, and where human contact is almost constantly mediated by a screen, there are advantages to just getting on the horn and talking to one another.

My, Your Voice Is So Information-Rich

“People need to pick the right way to communicate that is the easiest for both parties, says Barbara Pachter, a New Jersey business communications consultant and author of The Communication Clinic. “Sometimes [that’s] calls — they’re quick, you can make decisions, and then it’s done.”

A single brief phone call can do as much communicating as five or ten emails, Pachter notes, especially when it comes to setting a time to meet or making a simple decision. And on a call, there’s no doubt about whether the other party received the message.

“If you have to be sure that people get the information, and it’s a time-sensitive thing, you have to speak to the person,” Pachter says.

The Last Days of Talky-Talky

Yet many business etiquette pros say that among younger workers, the quick call — and especially the long, in-depth telephone conversation — are becoming a dying art.

“Once you get under [age] 40, they’re more comfortable being behind the screen,” says Judith Kallos, who for 20 years has been guiding businesspeople in online etiquette. “As soon as you throw them into a world of real people and face-to-face contact, they’re not as comfortable.”

Younger workers need to understand that clients and coworkers of older generations may strongly prefer phone conversations when it comes to doing business, Kallos says. Being accustomed to a flurry of text-based messages over email or even Slack is the new normal, and it’s changed the way we communicate so drastically and completely that it’s hard to believe it’s a recent development. And a generational one.

“My older clients want to be on the phone all the time,” Kallos says. “That’s what they’re comfortable with. They want to talk to you, they want to hear your voice as you’re responding to their questions.”

We’re Still Figuring Out This “Conversation” Thing

Of course, phone conversations can themselves be a poor substitute for in-person meetings, during which the careful observer can glean a great deal information from facial expressions, body language, and other physical details that aren’t available over the phone. For certain kinds of conferences, like brainstorming sessions and interviews, even the connection provided by the telephone may be insufficient. But the old dial tone is a great way to cut down on the quick messages that tend to clog our inboxes. And phone transmits far more of the subtleties of human conversation, like tone, inflection and pauses, than any text-based medium.

Pachter and Kallos acknowledge that calling someone on the phone — especially someone you don’t know well — can be intimidating if you’re not used to it. But it’s simply a requirement of maintaining a business relationship.

Kallos says she can often tell through the tone of a client’s email message when it’s time to just pick up the phone and call them — often for a difficult conversation that she isn’t going to enjoy but must have anyway.

Though the ease and utility of text, chat, email, and the rest push the phone call aside, it is, for the time being, essential, until business-to-business telepathy gets the kinks worked out.