The Art of the Cellphone Call

Janet Siroto
May 15, 2018

Modern life has made us dependent on our cell phones – but half the time we can’t even hear what the other person on the line is saying. Here, 4 smart ways to improve the situation.

As a father of two boys, I’m quite accustomed to not being heard. My neighbors have no problem hearing me scream, “Hurry up, we’re leaving for school NOW!” every morning. But as far as my sons’ ears are concerned, I might as well be whispering. From behind the door of a locked bank vault. That’s on the surface of the moon.Not being heard can be a bummer, but an even bigger bummer is not being able to hear. Specifically, what people are saying when I’m talking with them on my cell phone. As I creep into my mid-40s, I’ve become the guy who asks people I’m chatting with to repeat themselves 800 times. Party!

It gets annoying, for me and for them, so by the end of the conversation, I just start saying, “yes” and “sounds good” to anything they say. It hasn’t quite landed me into a Seinfeld puffy shirt situation yet, but it did have me giving an inappropriately chipper, “Okay, cool!” response to a family member telling me they were having a suspicious mole removed.

I write and interview people for a living, so being able to hear what they’re saying on a cell-phone call (which often gets scheduled on the fly) is vital to my work—and my ability to pay my mortgage. So here are a few hearing hacks I’ve used recently to combat Can-You-Repeat-That-itis.

Find a quiet spot to talk

This may seem obvious, but stroll around the streets of any city and just try to point out all of the “obvious” quiet spots to take a call. Not so easy, is it? Even if you live in a smaller town, trucks always seem to roar by at the exact wrong time when you’re on the phone. Or your seat at Starbucks is invariably next to a fussy baby or loud-laughing teenagers. So you have to slip into the closest thing to a soundproof booth you can find. I have a friend who likes to duck into ATM vestibules and look as if she’s about to hit up the machine for some cash. I personally prefer stepping into The Gap or Banana Republic, where I can sit in relative quiet, make my call, and pretend I’m waiting for my wife to try stuff on. The piles of sweaters make great sound buffers, and every once in a while I walk out with a great deal on a V-neck.

Shush the loud-talkers in your life

We work in an age of the open office—designed to combat the isolation and depression that being stuck in a cubicle brings. Unfortunately, open offices also combat the ability to hear, thanks to the wall of background noise that blabbing co-workers and pesky copy machines create. So if you’re like me, you find yourself hunched over with a hand cupped over your ear a lot when you’re on the phone. There’s got to be a better way, and there is. Talk with your office-mates and suggest a solution. The Harvard Business Review recommends coming up with a visual indicator to let your co-workers know you’re on an important call—a funny sign you can point to of, say, the Sssh finger-to-mouth gesture (better than another gesture that involves the middle finger, for sure).

Enlist an app

Even if you find a quiet spot, sometimes it’s still not enough to make a call sound really crisp and clear. That’s where the app can help. I tried SonicCloud, which filters and fine-tunes the sound on your phone. I took the app’s hearing test (it lasted a few minutes and required some focus, but was surprisingly fun), and then – with my ears properly profiled–was ready to go. I dialed my cell-phone calls through the app, and found whatever the heck it was doing somewhere in “the cloud” really worked for me. It eliminated the garbling and muddiness I struggle with from time to time.

Invest in quality headphones

One day, scientists will study my ears and marvel at their inability to hold an ear bud in place. Whatever brand I try, I pop ‘em in, take a few steps, and they fall right out. I finally committed to an over-the-ears style of headset, and it has made a major difference. They’re small enough that I don’t look too much like Princess Leia with two big buns stuck to the sides of my head, and they do a tremendous job of blocking outside noise. After much shopping around, I opted for Sennheiser headphones, which are about sound quality, not blasting your eardrums with thunder.

With these tactics and tools, your phone calls should be more about clarity and communication – with a lot less frustration in the mix.