Why do people mumble on the phone?

In my job, I regularly have to speak with people over the phone. These are people who desire a favorable result from our conversation. A significant percentage of people seem to make very little effort to speak audibly into the phone.

What is your guess as to why people would not make an effort to speak clearly in such situations? Would you assume they speak similarly when calling their friends/family, but that those people are able to understand them?

I’m getting the vibe from you here that you’re a dick but you haven’t put forth any info as to what type of work you do that you “have to speak with people”.

Don’t insult other posters outside of the pit.

So Humble opinions aren’t to be expressed in IMHO? duly noted and as I’m new here I won’t step in it again.

Some possibilities: Cell phones can have awful sound quality and muffle the sibilant sounds. Most people use cell phones nowadays. I still have a landline at home (actually an Ooma internet phone) for this reason. But I can hardly understand a word my older daughter says on her cell phone, It’s much better when she’s on her sister’s cell phone. A couple of the people on my work Zoom calls (done by phone, not computer) are almost unintelligible because of the muffling, but none of the people who still have landlines, or the people with presumably better cell phones have this problem.

Another problem is you and I are at the age when our hearing range starts getting narrower and we don’t hear the higher frequencies, which also makes the sibilant sounds more muffled. It’s much more obvious when listening to voices on shitty phones.

I’m gong to guess a combination of fear and suppressed rage causes some people to be less forceful and confident. When someone has something that another person needs and decides whether they get it, the person who needs it often feels fearful and angry at the situation at the same time.

When a person has control over a situation, they can behave more confidently and forcefully.

As an example, a doctor who makes life and death decisions may behave confidently like someone with a God-complex, but in a situation where they’re convicted of a crime and need to speak to a judge confidently, they sometimes look like a completely different person, incoherent and quiet.

Or another example, where a successful businessman may be very confident and in control in a business meeting, if they have to meet with a doctor about a life and death test result, that person might become very small and frightened, not speaking confidently at all.

I’m not sure the mode of communication makes a difference except that if the person is seeing someone in person, they can adjust their tone and manner based on the other person’s body language. On the phone, some people don’t get those cues.

I was going to say this. People don’t realize the degree to which this is true. The fidelity of old desktop phones was very high.

There’s also the fact that the receiver of an old desktop phone was positioned right under the speaker’s mouth. A cell phone receiver is not ideally placed. And you either have to put the whole phone against your cheek, which often causes accidental pressing of “buttons,” or hold it slightly away, which affects fidelity, and is also tiring. As a result, a lot of people use the “speaker” setting on cell phones, and this reduces fidelity even more.

If you use an old-fashioned desktop phone when you can-- at home or work-- you can improve what you hear even when the other person is using a cell phone. If a cell phone reduces fidelity by, say 20%, it’s additive, so when one party uses one, your fidelity is reduced by 20%. When both of you use one, it’s reduced by 40%.

If you don’t want to use a desk phone, and want to stick with a cell phone, you can use a headset, or get a speaker for it. Most cell phones are capable of producing better sound than their own built-in speakers can reproduce.

I know for certain that my hearing is very good, but I still have trouble understanding people when we are both using cell phones. Then I realized that when I used my phone in the car, where it used the car’s speakers, it was very clear. So I started hooking it up to an external speaker any time I knew a call would be more than a few sentences. Suddenly, the calls were perfectly clear.

So there are a few options: external speakers, headsets, desk phones.

There is also the factor that a lot of people mumble all the time and not just on the phone. But when you’re speaking to someone face-to-face you have other cues to help you understand what they’re saying - posture, body language, even to a degree lip reading - that are missing on audio-only phone. Or hard to decipher on a Zoom call.

This also why people have trouble understanding other people with masks - most of use don’t realize just how much we use facial/lip cues to understand each other.

Add in poor phone quality and/or aging ears and yeah, it’s frustrating.

I have a very dear friend who used to try to talk to me while using a crappy phone on speaker in a noisy ambient environment. And I know I’ve had some age (and bagpipe) related hearing loss which doesn’t help, either. I kept telling here I really CAN NOT understand what you are saying. It got to the point I told her to stop trying to talk to me unless she’s at home in a quiet room because otherwise there’s no point.

It was not a comfortable discussion. Not least because I often couldn’t hear her side of it (at one point her husband intervened and said that maybe she really should wait until she gets home and NOT use the speaker phone feature to discuss the issue).

It’s gotten better between us.

But I really, really do miss the sound clarity that phones used to have and people used to value.

I believe this is why younger people don’t like to make phone calls. They grew up with cell phones. And while cell phones are “good enough” for most critical things, they aren’t good enough to be pleasant to carry on a conversation.

My cell phone has an unusually bad microphone, and people always complain they have trouble hearing me. I have a landline, and I try to get everyone to use it. But sometimes i need to make a call from the doctor’s office. And sometimes i don’t want to ask them to call me back on my landline yet again.

I don’t know how loudly people speak to me on the phone. But people around me talking to other people on the phone shout twice as loud into the phone as they do in conversation with people in the same room.

Got it in 1! :smiley:

jtur88 - Yeah, I am always suspect of cell/speakerphones myself - w/ the result that I think I tend to speak TOO loudly when using them.

It is an all too frequent thing, when I have trouble hearing someone, I ask if they are on speaker, and nearly always they are. When they switch to handheld, it is generally much better, tho some still fail to speak clearly.

I have to use a headset w/ boom mic which is attached through my computer. We are supposed to be transitioning into MicrosoftTeams video calls - which I expect to be a complete clusterfuck. The people I deal with do not tend to be the most technically sophisticated - and this will require that EVERYONE is on speaker.

My personal thoughts are that when I am calling someone from whom I desire information/service, I make a special effort to speak loudly and clearly. I guess my personal mindset interferes with my ability to understand different behavior. It makes me wonder if they speak in a similar way when calling friends/family. The suggestion of fear/lack of confidence in these phone calls is a good one.

Another possibility is that some people mumble - as others moan and groan - to suggest how impaired they are (these calls take place in the context of applications for disability benefits.) I also perceive that there may be a cultural/educational/socioeconomic factor in the clarity with which people enunciate - which might be intertwined with the fear/anger/intimidation factor.

In my scripted introductory remarks, I mention at least 4 times that we are making a recording, and I ask everyone to speak clearly. Even after that, a percentage of people (maybe 10%?) continue to mumble. And then they continue after repeated additional reminders - which I make some effort (of questionable success) to tell them how important it is that I hear than AND that we get a good recording. I have access to their medical records, so I will look to see if any medical personnel noted difficulty communicating clearly, or identified any likely medical cause.

Thanks for the responses.

fwiw, my landline gives slightly cleared sound when I don’t use it on speaker (but unless I’m also running the blender or something, no one ever complains they can’t hear me on the landline) but my cellphone has much better sound on speaker. People just ask me over and over what I’ve said if I don’t use speaker. I’ve given up even trying to use it as a “handset”.

Honestly, some people just mumble, but I think the real problem is cell phones. And these days, most people only have access to a cell phone, and they don’t use it much (except for texting, reading reviews, navigating, browsing the web, chatting on message boards…) and aren’t familiar with just how bad they sound over it. So they are crippled from the get-go and likely haven’t developed good strategies to accommodate their listener. I would urge you to be patient, and just keep asking people to repeat themselves.

I think a lot of people are just bad at using the phone. I spend a lot of time on the phone as well. The first few lines of 25% or so of all my phone calls are:
[Phone Rings]
Me: Hello [Business name]
Them: Is this [business name]
Me: Yes, it is.

I mean, you called me, why weren’t you listening. I’ll repeat hello a few times, they’re there, I can hear them talking to someone, they’re clearly holding the phone in their hand. After a few seconds I hangup and they call right back, at least they’re usually ready the second time.
Then you have the people with the TV blaring in the background and saying ‘what?’ to me over and over. Well, start by turning down the TV.

Speakerphone is, and always has been an issue as well. I truly don’t understand why people use it. I can’t understand you, you can’t understand me, just pick up the phone. Usually if I say ‘what?’ enough times, eventually they pick the phone and say ‘is that better?’. Yes, yes it is.

The person sitting about 8 feet away from me does that. I usually wait until he’s off the phone before I make a call. I can’t hear the person I’m talking to over how loudly he talks on the phone. Outside of a phone call, he speaks at a totally normal volume though.

Is it an insult if the insultee agrees with it? Great philosophical question of the day. :face_with_monocle:

I was going to say what RivkahChaya said, but she said it way better.

Sometimes people hold the phone so the microphone is too low, way beneath their chin. Some people do this all the time, others do it sporadically during a conversation, causing the audibility to drop in and out. My sister does it often, and it makes it hard to tell what she’s saying. I have seen her do it and I have told her about it, but she still gets annoyed when she has to repeat what she said when the other party can’t make out what she said!

Heh, if you think Dinsdale is a dick, you should talk with me on the phone. I pretty much do not talk on the phone, preferring text messaging due in large part to my hearing loss. If I absolutely must talk on the phone, I use Bluetooth Bose headphones and my hearing aid and set the phone to speaker.

If I talk on the phone I make it clear that the caller has to speak clearly. If they do not, I ask them one time to speak more clearly, after that I hangup. A few times people have called me back, saying one of our phones must have lost the call. I explain, nope, I hung up on you because you weren’t speaking clearly enough.

I almost always use the speakerphone of my landline. The ergonomics are WAY better. I miss old-fashioned phones that were designed to fit your hand and face, rather than designed to be tidy and slick. I’ve used headsets, but I have minor issues with my ears and I find them uncomfortable. Also, I don’t currently own one that works with my personal phone, just my employer’s phone (via my employer’s laptop.)

I’m old enough that I enjoy chatting on the phone. I can hear you just fine, and unless there’s something noisy in the background, or I get careless and don’t face the phone when I speak, you can hear my just fine, too. But even if there’s some loss of clarity, the ergonomics are SO much better. I almost never hold the phone up to my face.

And, as mentioned above, there’s something wrong with my cell phone, and the non-speaker-mode microphone doesn’t work at all. I might as well be on mute. Because 98% of my phone’s use is for things other than voice calls (like chatting on this message board, or texting, or buying stuff on Amazon, or…) and it works well for everything EXCEPT phone calls, I’m reluctant to spend a lot of money to upgrade my cell phone. I don’t usually even call it a phone, I usually refer to it as “my gadget”.

Good lord, what depths have I sunk to, if in an attempt to prove me non-dickish, the argument is, “At least he’s no kayaker!” :smiley:

Yeah - I’ve NEVER liked talking on the phone - even to close friends/family. For me, the phone is for the briefest transmission of absolutely necessary info. The rest can wait until we see each other. And in my old job, I gloried in the fact that my work phone NEVER rang.

But that’s the problem. I’m at work, usually trying to transcribe what they’re saying. So if someone is giving me a list of items to order, or a phone number or a delivery address or a credit card number, clarity is important. It can mean the difference between you getting your order and you getting mad because it didn’t show up for some reason (like me misunderstanding the address).