May 26, 2014

Why Doesn’t My American Colleague Answer the Phone?

Reaching an American colleague by phone without a pre-determined appointment may be a challenge for some. Getting one’s voice mail when calling them outside of regularly scheduled phone meetings may be a normal response. 

And, from what I hear, when many Indians get the voice mail, they just hang up. This is not always the best answer to the situation. Voice mails are very important to the communication flow in an American office. So, why are voice mails so important

Americans Do Not Answer Calls During Meetings  
Typically, in the U.S., answering the phone while in meetings or in conversations with others is considered bad manners. An American would feel ‘interrupted’ if another colleague took a call when he’s in a meeting with that person. So, during meetings and other busy times of the day, many Americans let their ‘phone go to voicemail’. They may even turn the ringer off so that they don’t hear the phone ring!

To some in India, this is considered strange, or even rude from what I have experienced. I have noticed that in India, taking calls during meetings is normal in many circumstances. The main reason for this is that there is no voice mail facility. Even if it is available in India, it is rarely, if ever used. This means that a missed call is truly a missed call. To avoid missing the call, interruptions from calls and texts are a common occurrence during some meetings in Indian companies.

Voice Mails are akin to E-mails
“Phone tag is a phenomenon in which two parties attempt to contact each other by telephone, but neither is able to get a hold of the other for a conversation.” (source link)  This phenomenon is very common in the U.S., as it is respectable and even desirable to leave a voice mail. ’Conversations’ may continue for days or weeks on end through voice mails in the absence of a live, real-time telephone or in-person conversations. This may seem strange to Indians who rarely use voice mail, and it may even seem impersonal. However, most working professionals in America find this behavior normal and even desirable.

In a recent Forbes article, Ron Culberson talks about how he turns off his phone during some blocks of time so that he can concentrate on his work without interruption. This was a common occurrence in many offices in the U.S. that I worked in. I have heard many bosses encourage this. This gives us some ‘quiet time’ to sit and focus on particular tasks, completing them one by one until they are done, without distractions. This may sound strange to some Indians, who manage phone calls, meetings with multiple people (employees and clients), and supervise the office staff all at the same time!

Prioritize Important Matters
Yes, there are times when we may be aware of a very important pending call that may come through during an important meeting. Typically, such calls are related to family members in difficult situations who may contact us. Rarely, emergency calls include client or other work related calls, as those are best scheduled outside meeting times. Addressing a possible emergency call is done before the meeting starts and often sounds something like this,

“I know taking calls during meetings is frowned upon, but I am expecting a very urgent call from the doctor regarding my family member’s condition as she is in the hospital. If the call comes through during the meeting, I will step out for a short time and return back in. Thank you!”

It is important that such an announcement has these elements:
An acknowledgement that this is not an everyday activity (which is like an apology to save face for breaking the rules).
A short reason that relates to a delicate topic.
A note that the call will be taken outside the room, so that the attendees know that you will be exiting the room and entering back in.

What is the price of not making this announcement? Let’s say that not making this announcement will cause more problems with most Americans than saying something at the outset. If one takes a call during a meeting without a warning, inside or outside the room, others will surely find it an inappropriate behavior and some may even be offended.

We have learnt a few reasons for the importance of voice mails to American colleagues or clients. For the most fruitful (prosperous) business relationships, it’s important for the Indian colleagues to understand the different culture of communication with the Americans. It may be possible that learning how to leave a voice mail is warranted. There are a few best practices that can help you leave appropriate and effective voicemails. Learning to leave voice mails can save you a significant amount of time in communicating back and forth over time zones while building rapport with your American colleagues.

Share your experiences or best practices in leaving voice mails with your American colleagues. If you or your India-based team would like to learn more about voice mails, phone etiquette, meeting etiquette with US counterparts, or best practices to help you use voice mails and phone, I can help you learn through role plays and other trainings. These trainings will help you create a good impression on your American colleagues and improve your rapport with your American colleagues.

To request for voice mail / phone etiquette training for you or your Kochi-based India team, contact us. Thank you!

Author Jennifer Kumar is a cross-cultural coach helping Indians to communicate easily and more successfully with Americans and bridge the cultural gap. Jennifer is based in Kochi and can provide in-person, phone, and net-based coaching to identified individuals and small teams.

Chris Sufi is a freelance editor who lives in Bangalore, India. Her personal interest in language and communication inspires her to contribute through proofreading and editing. She can be contacted here.  

Related Posts: 
How to Handle Conversations and Taking Turns on Phone Calls  
Meeting Etiquette - Do's and Don'ts (video discussion)  

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