“Right Hear, Right Now”: Hearing Loss Awareness as Works of Art
April 30, 2015
Breaking the Surgery Mindset
May 11, 2015

More Phone Etiquette for the Hearing Challenged and Those that Call Them

Everyone with a hearing challenge has a phone story.

I knew from my very first hearing aid that the phone was going to be a problem. The technology at the time included a phone program that worked if I was in the right location with my head cocked at a 27 degree angle facing east during the new moon. Static was a persistent by-product.

Today, I am one of the growing numbers of people using a cell phone almost exclusively. I also have an adapted and amplified phone with a visual display connected to the Wi-Fi in my home that I have yet to customize to my preferences as I am skeptical about the Wi-Fi reception for reasons I’ll outline later.


Even 30 years on, some things about hearing aids and phones still hold true. For incoming calls, the reception from a hard wired, cabled phone line sounds the best to me. If I am anticipating a call from a friend or associate I ask them to call me on their land line if in fact they have one.

If I am making an outgoing call from a land line other than my home, that phone has to have a hand set that can accommodate my aid AND has some kind of a volume control. I say “some kind of volume control” because the possibilities there are endless especially in hotel rooms and other public places.

“Smart” phones are great, have apps, and the added advantage of allowing us to text and receive email just in case we could not execute a successful call. That said, smartphones can have several drawbacks from circuitry to microphone and speaker issues to the challenge when traveling through “LOST” type terrain.

Like the cell phone, the cordless phone allows you to do just about anything while chatting. My experience is that cordless phones are to consistent sound transmission as 8-track tapes were to excellent music transmission. Purchased any 8-tracks lately? Cordless phones are only good for the call-ee IF the caller stands or sits in one spot and does not move.

There are of course T coils, TTS and captioning and adaptors and other thingamabobs for your phones. I say “Go for it.”  Whatever works. The technology keeps improving.

If only I could say the same thing for the two people on the phone.

Right now my hearing is stable as long as I stay healthy and upgrade my tech from time to time. But I have no control over those who try to call me. Recently a friend of many years pronounced his ignorance of my hearing challenge. “It’s volume, right? You need the world turned up a bit right?” he said. Argh! Nevertheless here was a helpful insight into something I experience each and every time I pick up the phone. Whoever is calling me probably doesn’t get it either. 

But how could any caller know or do anything to respond if a) I do not tell them up front, or b) despite telling them, they are unable to do anything about their end of the conversation.

Which brings me to the topic of “Phone Etiquette.” Phone etiquette is not just about announcing our hearing issues, but it’s also about the speaker being more responsive to the vocal sounds he or she emits during a conversation. It’s clear that each and any call can slide down hill precipitously without that awareness.

Each of us possesses a different voice with its own signature, features and facets. It’s on the phone where these are especially evident if the caller is someone you do not know. Without the visual cues we usually get in reading lips, interpreting body language and getting that warm and fuzzy feeling whenever we reach out and touch someone, we can be lost.

Making vocal sounds, much less comprehensible ones, involves several activities that can at any time go kerplooie. Just consider for instance having a condition that permanently or temporarily impacts your voice. Here a modicum of phone etiquette usually kicks in when we apologize for having a “frog in my throat,” “a bad code,” or the dreaded allergies and accompanying “nathal congethtion.”

But there are some vocal qualities for which phone etiquette does not require an apology but may require some adjustments. These would be the difficult to comprehend voices, broken down here into several categories.

Thin, high pitched/squeaky voices; deep down, soulful voices (Darth Vader without the heavy breathing), speed talkers, low talkers, mumblers, number crunchers, accents, dialects, regionalisms not to mention various other idiosyncrasies emanating from our vocal architecture including the lungs, the trachea, the vocal chords, the larynx or vocal box, throat, nose, and mouth that help us to produce and shape our unique human sounds.

As a trained singer and voice artist, I can tell you that making a consistent clear vocal sound on or off the phone is not easy and takes practice and training. Not only can this make for difficult phone conversations, it’s even worse when trying to decipher a phone message.

Example: the mumbling, speed talking, number cruncher

Someone has just left you an important message — so important that the message has been screamed into the phone at alarming speed. You did not get their name but it sounded like “Bfnu Hrnsten G.”  No problem you think, I’ll just get the number and call them back. They say it just once and the number you hear is “snfideeeeoosixflniven.”

Example: the deep down, soulful Darth Vaderish voice

Silky, smooth, beautiful but often unintelligible. These voices sink to the bottom of the ocean and never come up for air no matter how perfectly their message is delivered.

Example: the high pitched, squeaky, loud then soft, and/or accented and dialected voice 

See “the deep down, soulful, Darth Vaderish voice” and just flip it over. Add just enough speed as per the cultural velocity of whatever is that person’s first language.

Example: very thin and soft voices

These voices have little bite to them so much of what is said tends to drift off like a cool summer breeze in a valley somewhere. I can see their voice but I cannot hear it.

OK, so what do I do?

I like to receive texts and emails whenever I can and others are willing. I answer the phone very irregularly unless I can identify the caller. If I pick up the phone and cannot understand what the caller is saying I say “I wear a hearing aid and I need you to talk slower or talk a little louder,” and/or “is it true that Luke Skywalker is really your son?”

If my request cannot be met, I ask for another person to speak to. If there is no solution I ask if they can send a text or email. At last, I say I am going to hang up and will not talk with you or your company unless someone I can understand calls me back. I tell them that if they leave a message it must be clear.

My take is this:

  • Being able to speak a country’s language may not mean that you can be understood. Nevertheless,
  • Anyone can “learn” to speak on the phone and speak clearly enough to be understood.
  • Anyone who speaks on the phone as a job should be trained by a voice specialist. Conversely every company or business that hires people to work the phone must train them not only to provide good information but to be clearly understood — the first time.
  • It’s clear to me that not everyone is comfortable and many are self-conscious about speaking on the phone or leaving a message without a face to speak to. Understood.

If you’re calling me, here’s what works.

Take your time. There is no buzzer that will go off if you talk too long. Always, always, always repeat who you are, where you’re calling from. If leaving a phone message, leave it a minimum of two times. If you can structure your message to make sense rather than going back over details in a different order, terrific. Keep your voice volume and tone consistent. Dropping then punching your voice is especially difficult to understand.

Numbers: Every number is made up of several vowels and consonants and being able to decipher them is critical. Imagine putting a period at the end of each number you say: This will force you to say the entire number rather than a piece of it. And leave an air space after each set of numbers: 123 – 456 – 78910 then repeat it again just like that without changing the rhythm or the speed.

Surely there must be a model for good phone etiquette and voice transmission… and there is.


There she is in commercials, on phone systems, providing GPS directions and addressing travelers in airport terminals. Siri is actually a voice-over professional named Susan Bennett and her voice is heard worldwide – worldwide. That’s a good clue that she can be understood. Born in Vermont, Bennett grew up with a New England accent and dropped her Rs. She lost the accent and now makes it easy for billions of us to hear what we need to hear when we need to hear it.

We can’t all speak like Siri/Susan but we can make an attempt regardless of our voice idiosyncracies to be understood. And when we do, the world of phone communications will be a far, far better place.

Oh. Yes. It. Will.

How’s the phone treating you these days?

Author Details
Stu Nunnery is a professional writer, musician, composer, actor and activist. In 2013 he began a years-long journey to return to making music after a bilateral hearing loss ended a successful career forty-five years ago. Taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, auditory training and vocal work, he resumed performing in 2017 and made his first new recording in 2018. Recently, Stu also completed a screenplay about his musical journey. A graduate of Princeton University, Stu has studied piano, voice, acting, improvisation and public speaking. He is a member of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, and for his activism, is a Phonak “hEARo” and a “HearStrong Champion.”