Phone and Email Etiquette for ESL Speakers

Email and phone etiquette can be confusing—especially for non-native speakers. Lisa B, Marshall gives some quick tips to help you communicate better at work. 

Lisa B. Marshall,
August 31, 2015

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Because my podcasts have an international appeal, I often get questions from people whose first language is not English. Here’s one I received recently:

Hi Lisa,

Pl. Forward me some example on telephonic discussion & email etiquette.



Thanks for the question, Dinesh! It’s often difficult for a person speaking a non-native language to know the etiquette used by the natives. Additionally, there is the problem of accent that may make being understood on the phone a bit trickier. In this post, I'll answer Dinesh’s questions, but I plan to also follow up with another blog from a different perspective: how best for native speakers to interact with non-native speakers. 

Telephone Etiquette

One of the most important things you need to get across on the phone is your name, and that can also be the most difficult. Often the name is quite unfamiliar to English speakers. Take the time to say your name slowly when you first call. You may want to repeat it a second time, or spell it if that will help. Some people choose to use a shortened version of their real name that may be more familiar to English speakers; for instance, a man named Siddharth might go by the name Sid.  Some even choose an English name to use instead of their own name when interacting in English. This is especially common with Chinese names.  

In addition to your name, most calls start with some pleasantries.  You can very briefly mention the weather or something you already know the caller is interested in. Also you'll want to just quickly check that the timing is good for this phone call. For example, "Is this still a good time for us to speak?" 

When having your conversation or leaving your message, you'll want to speak slowly and enunciate clearly. Hopefully, the other person will be giving you the same courtesy! If not, you may ask them to repeat themselves or perhaps say the sentence in different words. This is not rude. It actually shows you really care. You can say something like, “I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. Can you please repeat that?” Then try to tell the person back what you thought was said. “So what you mean is … ?” and say what you think they have said. That way you both know that you’re making sense to the other person.

Also keep in mind that conversations in English tend to be very direct and to the point, so feel free to make your points directly and clearly. Present your thoughts in a logical flow.  When you are done, it's always a good idea to summarize the main points discussed and then remind the person of any next steps.  If someone has a follow-up task, it's good to bring that up again at the end. 

When you are finished, always end with “Goodbye!” You could also say, “It was great talking with you," or “Thank you for taking time to speak with me” for a nice pleasant touch.

Check out my former posts, 10 Tips for Better ESL Conversations, 5 Ways to Reduce Your Accent, and How to Sound Conversational for more information.


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