Nov 5, 2019
Of all the tasks that this foreigner working in an office in Japan is reluctant to perform, answering the phone in Japanese is the one that I perform with the most reluctance.
In fact I’d go as far as to say that I’m frightened of the office phone’s jarring jangle laden as it is with the potential to expose flawed Japanese and a gaping ignorance toward company personnel and departmental structure -- “Who are you wishing to speak to, and what department was that?”
Some context. When the phone rings at the office here in Japan it’s almost never for me -- something I shall be eternally grateful for -- but this does not exempt me entirely from phone-answering duties.
When I have to answer the phone in Japanese at work though, it’s invariably because, well, this is Japan and we mostly conduct business in Japanese, and that I’ve been left to survive solo on this island of desks (all my Japanese colleagues being out to lunch, at a meeting, or on a business trip). That or my American engineer colleague is here but they seem to fall below me in the phone-answering pecking order on accounts of Japanese pronunciation.
So it is then that my phone-answering duties at the office here in Japan are limited to taking a name, company and message and passing this message onto the relevant colleague. Simple, right?!
Language and pressure make this seemingly simple aspect of working in Japan a sweat-inducing challenge, for me at least. To make answering the phone in Japanese less daunting the key is good preparation, and not to take any of the seemingly obvious forms of preparation that follow for granted.
Jump to each form of preparation:
So, imagine the phone at work is ringing ...
Picking up on name and company
“A Company no B department no Smith to omoshimasu.” - (This is Tom Smith calling from B department of A Company.)
The first problem when answering the phone in Japanese occurs right off the bat -- the person on the other end of the line is, rightly, expecting me (the person answering the phone) to be Japanese. I’m not (if that wasn’t clear already). As such they invariably launch into their name and company in a similar way to how one might scribble a signature -- illegibly. Or in this case, incomprehensibly. It gets even worse when they throw in a department name and / or job title.
This puts me on the back foot right away. I’m so busy scrambling about in my brain trying to clasp at some semblance of a name that I’m no longer up to speed with the next part of their speech.
The situation is exacerbated by my rather decent Japanese pronunciation. A good thing one might have thought but all it does when I have to answer the phone in Japanese is serve to belay my level of understanding, or listening comprehension.
The first thing is to have pen and paper ready, at all times. Forget trying to remember this stuff because you’ll invariably forget it. As soon as the phone rings be ready to start scribbling down names and companies.
Answer the phone in Japanese armed with phraseology that targets how to ask for a person’s name one more time, and take comfort in being able to ask this later on during the call.
お名前も一度お願い致します。- “O-namae mo ichidou onegaishimasu.” (May I have your name one more time, please?)
And similarly when inquiring about the caller’s company / department …
連絡先お願い致します。- “Renraku saki onegaishimasu.” (May I take the company / department details?)
Answer the phone in English! A controversial suggestion from my American engineer colleague who adopts a much more robust approach when they have to answer the phone at work. It’s nothing if not honest and at least gives the caller the appropriate context of the call and the understanding that if the rest of the phone call does proceed in Japanese, it will do so with them speaking a little slower.
After numerous years of living and working in Japan though, there’s an element of pride in this foreign worker that prevents me from answering the phone at work with a beaming, “Hello!” To my detriment, perhaps.
Right company, wrong department
On rare occasions I answer the phone to someone who has got the wrong number in so far as they have come through to the wrong department or section of the right company.
This type of call exposes my lack of knowledge regarding company structure and personnel, not an exclusively Japanese problem then but it does highlight an interesting perspective of being a foreigner working in a Japanese office -- that of giving into any “kid gloves” treatment on behalf of colleagues that shelters the foreigner from getting into the minutiae of Japanese company life.
This could be isolation from office politics which, while saving the foreigner from a frosty atmosphere or inane gossip at the rest area coffee machine, does take away a great opportunity to get familiar with names and who’s doing what (or who), where and when.
The stark result of this is that all too often I don’t know who it is the caller is talking about, let alone how to put them through to the relevant phone. Sometimes callers even present me with company departments, teams or projects that I didn’t even know we had!
With no one around to ask this is a tough one. The only solution really is for me to cultivate a better understanding of my employer. It’s a long-term solution though, so in the meantime I just have to pray that I don’t get this kind of phone call.
By no means a comprehensive solution but one that at least allows me to pass the problem off onto someone else, is to be armed with the phone number for another section of the company. My being “armed” in this respect is to have my business card ready (so I know the bulk of the phone number), along with the aforementioned paper and pen.
Our team moved floors earlier in the year and so for the following weeks we would get calls from people trying to get through to colleagues on a different floor. I used this. Whenever a call came through for someone I didn’t know or who I knew to be anywhere other than in my immediate vicinity I would just tell the caller that we had changed floors and they needed to dial a different number.
すみません。フロアが変りましたので、違う番号を入れてください。“Sumimasen, floor ga kawarimashita no de chigau bango wo irette kudasai.” - (I’m sorry, we have changed floors so please try a different number.)
I would then give them the extension of the correct number, …
最初の４桁を1234にしてください。“Saisho no yon keta wo 1234 nishite kudasai.” (Please enter the last four numbers as 1234.)
This solution really only papers over the cracks though. I need to be more familiar with company departments and personnel.
Ending the call
So, invariably the caller is asking to speak to one of my colleagues who isn’t present due to either a meeting, lunch or business trip …
すみません。Smithさんは今打ち合わせいにはいています。”Sumimasen, Smith-san wa uchiawasei ni haiteimasu.” - (I’m sorry. Smith-san is in a meeting right now.)
すみません。Smithさんは昼休み中。”Sumimasen, Smith-san wa hiruyasumi chu.” - (I’m sorry. Smith-san is on lunch break.)
すみません。Smithさんは今日出張です。”Sumimasen, Smith-san wa kyou shutchou desu.” (I’m sorry. Smith-san is on a business trip today.)
In regards to knowing the whereabouts of colleagues, when you’re on phone-answering duty be sure to have open and to hand whatever online calendar function you’re using at the workplace.
It’s at this point that I’m presented with the problem of ending the call. Sometimes it’s made easy for me by the caller simply saying something like …
分かりました。後ほど電話します。”Wakarimashita. Nochihodou denwa shimasu.” - (I understand. I’ll call back later.)
Usually though, I’m stuck with trying to end the call in such a way that doesn’t require me to take a long message that I would struggle with.
So, rather than using the classic, “Can I take a message?” I’ll offer to have my colleague call them back …
こちらから 折り返しご連絡 致しますか？ - "Kochira kara furikaechi gorenraku itashimasuka?" - (Shall I have them call you back?)
And at this point I’ll likely have to ask them once again for their name and company / department / phone number as detailed already. Know your numbers!
So there’s really no novel solution to ending a Japanese phone call at work -- this a professional environment and I’m not sure how familiar the Japanese are with feigning static and making noises about a bad line.
Passing on the message
The hard work of answering the phone call in Japanese being done, I don’t want to mess it up by not passing on the message to the relevant colleague.
This is typically done via SNS-style group chat. Now, I could just type this out in English and it would be accepted and understood, but I like to try and do these things in Japanese …
A CompanyのSmithさんからお電話がありました。折り返しご連絡をお願いします。- "A Company no Smith-san kara odenwa ga arimashita. Furikaeshi gorenraku wo onegaishimasu." (You got a call from Smith-san from A Company. Can you call them back, please?)
A CompanyのSmithさんからお電話がありました。後ほどご連絡頂けるそうです。- “A Company no Smith-san kara odenwa ga arimasita. Nochihodou itadakeru sou desu.” (You got a call from Smith-san from A Company. They would like you to call them back.)
That’ll do it, and now it’s out of my hands! I can breathe a sigh of relief, and typically do.
Even if one fails to get to grips with answering the phone in Japanese at work and passing on the message experience tells me that it’s better to own up to these failings -- tell the relevant colleague that a phone call came in for them but that you had trouble understanding and are struggling to pass on a clear message. It’s much better in the long run and hopefully said colleague will appreciate the honesty and will be able to office advice and support in the future when you have to answer the phone in Japanese. And also, they tend to know who it was who was calling anyway, and can pick things up from there.
And if it’s any consolation, just wait until the time comes that one of your Japanese colleagues has to deal with a phone call in English!
When it comes to answering the phone in Japanese at work, it’s usually not a case of picking up the receiver and speaking into it. You usually have to press a button first before the line is connected. Hit whatever button is flashing!
Note: The horyu button -- 保留 -- puts people on hold. Familiarize yourself with it.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice to give to someone who has to answer the phone in Japanese at work is to remain calm. Easier said than done, of course. The greater sense of calm comes from being prepared (by having addressed all of the points above) but there is also the purely mental aspect of being calm in order to prevent you from the kind of panic that can prevent one from hearing names, recollecting who works in which department, and taking down messages.
At this foreigner’s place of work in Japan, or at least in their team, we have set up a redirect system for our phone such that if activated, incoming calls are redirected to the cell phone of whichever colleague has been selected. On those occasions when I’m feeling like I don’t want to worry about having to answer the phone in Japanese at work, I just activate the redirect function … and feel slightly guilty for doing so!
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