Phone Support: What did you say?

If you’ve ever done any sort of support over a telephone (and I suspect that you probably have), you know that miscommunication can cause big problems, especially when you’re having the other person type unfamiliar commands which cause headaches for you when they’re entered incorrectly.

I’ve always wanted to memorize the standard phonetic alphabet that the military uses, because in the middle of a phone call, I hate going “L like…uhh…like…lemonade”. So when I was researching it tonight, I found out there there is not just one agreed upon alphabet. In fact, there are several.

Look through the list and find one that you like. One thing I found amusing was that whether the alphabet used names, places, or whatever, almost every one of them used X-ray. I guess there’s no getting around that. Except for Norwegian, of course, which gets points for “Xerxes”.

  • jronnblom

    A great reference can be found at wikipedia where you also can choose which version you want or learn about the differences.

  • Matt


    Good link, thanks! The wiki presentation is a lot clearer than the page I linked to.

  • Bill

    As someone who just came out of the military, we were trained on the NATO standard that was provided in your link. If you just recite it out loud about 10 times, you’ll find it sticks relatively quickly.

  • Ben C

    Since I’m a ham radio operator, I generally default to the ITU phonetic alphabet (which is the same as the NATO standard). The fun part is that some of the letters are pronounced differently than normal. For example, Quebec is KAY-bek.

    However, I did a lot of scanner listening back in the day (and still do sometimes), so I’ll occasionally catch myself using the phonetic alphabet that I hear the police use. And sometimes, I use a mix and end up confusing myself.

  • Matt

    @Bill It’s something that I need to do. I find myself making up words often enough that it bothers me to not know it.

    @Ben C

    Interesting! What are the differences between the police NATO alphabets?

  • Reamer77

    I definitely had a print-out of the phonetic alphabet tacked on my wall when I was working in tech support.

    The worst at that job though was trying to get them to get the support email address correct. I don’t know how many times I went through this spiel. “Email me at [email protected].” “[email protected]?” “No, uu dot net.” “I don’t get it. What’s your email address again?” *facepalm*

  • James

    I also had a printed copy on my wall. I had gotten the Navy guy who worked there to say it for me while I wrote it down. The big use that I had for it was confirming the terminal IDs of IBM 4700 series green screen terminals attached to an IBM mainframe prior to performing a terminal reset.

    In 1997.

    Yet another *facepalm*

  • Adam Ruth

    I remember memorising the NATO alphabet back in the early 80s because it was printed in the back of the Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0 manual. It’s been a great party trick ever since (my friends are easily amused), but it is also quite helpful to never need to scramble for a word.

  • krg

    @Matt: depends on the locale, but most law enforcement alphabets use common American English words, usually male and female names.

  • Kenny

    When I did support, I just used random names when I did it until we took on a contract for a company that targetted members of the military and their families. I got someone who didn’t like me saying N as in Nancy and demanded me to say November. That guy was a dick.

    At work, I only have to worry about a few letters for container numbers and aircraft tail numbers. A – D show up on containers, all tail numbers start with N and end with either FX or FD.

  • Kelly Martin

    I had to read a Microsoft product key over the phone (to a Microsoft representative no less) and used the NATO alphabet, which earned me the question “Were you in the military?” Of course not, I’m a ham radio operator.

    On*Star customer support uses NATO, at least the times I’ve dealt with them.

  • Anonymous

    The whole purpose behind a standardized phonetic alphabet is to reduce ambiguity. The military (NATO) version uses the words it uses because of their DISsimilarity to each other; it was designed with this in mind. For instance, when calling in indirect fire, the FO is often close enough for the sound of the impacting rounds to interefere with communications to the extent that confusion, adrenaline, imprecision or radio signal (static) issues can conceivably cause the originators to shift fire unintentionally onto friendly positions. A standardized phonetic alphabet helps to minimize mistakes of this error.

    The same reasoning applies to law enforcement and/or emergency vehicle radio communications. Confusion over tag numbers or addresses due to miscommunication can cause lives to be lost and property to be irreparably damaged. This applies to civilians as well as the emergency responders.

    Matt, as Bill said, reciting the alphabet a few times will fix it in your mind in very short order. I learned it initially from my dad, though his version–from the 50s, was slightly different from the one impressed on me during the 70s and 80s.

    Kenny, the guy really wasn’t being a dick, he was being precise because precision under battlefield conditions saves lives. This type (as well as many other types) of rigid discipline is necessary so that everyone is playing from the same sheet of music. I imagine that he was a man in authority and that his insistence on this precision from you was simply a carryover from his “day” job. Since you were targetting military members and their families, his expectation wasn’t completely unreasonable. You’ll find the same kind of rigidity in LEOs as well.

  • Matt


    Thanks for submitting that. It’s definitely a viewpoint that I don’t see a lot of, here in civilian life. Are/were you in IT in the military? I’d love to hear more about how standards are enforced in their infrastructures.

  • James

    Are/were you in IT in the military? I’d love to hear more about how standards are enforced in their infrastructures.

    Any Windows box that’s not current with the latest patches from Windowsupdate must do twenty pushups. :P

  • Matt


    wow, that’s tough. If a system gets malware and becomes part of a botnet, does it get a court martial? ;-)

  • Steve

    >Are/were you in IT in the military? I'd love to hear more about how standards are enforced in their infrastructures.

    I was in an Anti-Tank Company–TOW.

    I've never had a job in IT; before, during or since the Corps.

    I got out of the Corps in 1986. There weren't any computers at the unit at all as this was a bit before their time.

    I read your blog in hopes of learning something but what I've learned is that I have a LOT to learn.