Last week, I got a phone call from an unknown number, and the conversation went this way:

Her : How are you?
Me  : Who are you?

To put things in context, she turned out to be an old friend. She apparently assumed that I would have her number saved in my phone and/or would recognize her voice. Hence, she did not consider it necessary to introduce herself first.

However, my last contact with her was over 5 years ago. I had either deleted her number or just lost it when I changed my phone handset. I also did not recognize her voice, so blurted out that response.

In hindsight, or rather, almost immediately, this didn't feel right. How to properly respond when the other person assumes you recognize them, but you don't?

  • 12
    She didn't "keep in touch", she is more of a "friend in need is a friend indeed" type .... by which I mean, she is a friend indeed when she is in need. That was why she suddenly remembered me after 5 years.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:03
  • 18
    What's wrong with the classic "May I ask who's calling?"
    – ArnoldF
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 20:02
  • 2
    @DrEval I must say, "who are you and what do you want?" does sound like the kind of response I would have preferred to give instead. It has a nice ring to it. :P Especially if I say it with my usual deadpan tone.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 15:28
  • Why do you think your answer wasn't suitable?
    – Ael
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 14:59

7 Answers 7


You're going to have to find out who they are regardless of how well they know you. You start with something softer.

Sorry I've recently got a new phone, who's speaking, please?

This basically says what you said to us, you've had a new phone handset and don't have the number saved.

or you could just say:

Who's speaking, please?

If the new handset change wasn't that recent. Instead of outright coming out with "Who are you?", "Who's speaking, please?" is much softer in tone.

  • 2
    So basically this? But seriously, +1. I think that this is better than the answer from Christopher, as it avoids the uncomfortable situation where the other person doesn't get the hint and doesn't identify themselves, and you have to ask them when you are already halfway through the conversation.
    – tim
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 16:17
  • Just realised if they've seen them recently, wouldn't you know who they are? Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:01
  • 5
    @BradleyWilson: In theory, yes. In practice, I have trouble remembering my own birthday; I have no doubt I'd forget the sound of someone's voice (especially if it's distorted over the phone).
    – tonysdg
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:02
  • 1
    Instead of saying you got a new phone, you could say you don't recognize the number or similar. In theory, stating that you don't recognize it should also indicate you don't have it stored and caller ID has failed to give you useful info. Only after I discover it's someone I know who I might should have their number does it make sense to tell them that I transitioned phones or otherwise lost the number. (It's also possible they have a new number, of course.)
    – jpmc26
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 0:02
  • You can also blame the lack of recognition on the cell phone itself. People I talk to every day sound SO different on different phones it's ridiculous.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 23:35

When I get calls like this, I just lead the conversation. I respond to the question with something like,

I'm doing great. What can I do for you?

Typically, the caller will introduce or identify themselves at that stage and (hopefully) get to the point. In nearly every case they do introduce themselves and start with their spiel at which point I usually have to interrupt with "I'm sorry, but _____" and then hang up. If it's a telemarketer, they won't take the hang up personally and just move on to the next call.

Of course if it's not a telemarketer and is someone that I have a genuine personal relationship with (which is what this question really asks) the phrasing of the question lets 99% know that I don't recognize their voice. Yes, you may have to ultimately ask who someone is, but that's extremely rare as most people are more perceptive than that. I get tons of phone calls and don't always add people to my contacts so I do people calling as you describe more often than you'd think.

  • 4
    +1 A bit less formally, I'll say "I'm wonderful<pause> (and) who've I got?" which seems a bit less harsh than "who are you?". Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 15:27
  • 1
    With text messages it works similarly. "Hey Wildcard, how is it going?" "Hey there, I'm doing great!" I don't need to ask who it is unless they want something. :D
    – Wildcard
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 22:50
  • 5
    "the phrasing of the question lets 99% know that I don't recognize their voice" Really?? It seems like a pretty normal thing to say to people you do know. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 4:48

"Who is this?" should be pretty neutral and understandable.

Possible variations: "I'm sorry, who is this?", "I'm sorry, whom am I speaking with?"

  • 1
    I'd agree with this answer. Regardless of how you dress it up, you're still going to be asking who the other person is when they expect you already to know. The message is the same, unless you pretend to know. Provided your tone of voice is reasonable, you can't expect to control the other person's reaction to this, and it's not your responsibility to try.
    – Dan
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 10:01
  • 5
    We are six siblings, and it seems every one of us calls Mum and says "it's me!" She then says, "who is it then?" and none of us are offended.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 10:31
  • @RedSonja: I'm assuming your mom recognizes that it's one of her children calling though, right? It's not like she thinks you're a stranger does she?
    – user541686
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 10:52
  • 3
    Hey, thanks for the answer! Can you please explain exactly why you think that this is a good idea? Why do you say to take this course of action? What’s the thought process behind this answer? As this currently stands, this is essentially a “Try this!” answer. We require that answers provide some sort of explanation for why they are suggesting this solution, and unfortunately, at the moment this answer doesn't appear to do that.
    – Mithical
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 21:05
  • 2
    @ArwenUndómiel: I already did explain -- I think it's a good idea because "Who is this?" is pretty neutral and understandable.
    – user541686
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 21:11

I really don't think you need to do anything. Starting a conversation without even a simple hello, even amongst close acquaintances, and especially on the phone, is out of the norm. The problem was with the caller and not anything you said.

A more common expression in your scenario would be to say 'Who is this?' rather than 'Who are you?' since the latter can sound accusatory.


Something like:

"Hi I am doing well thank you for asking. I apologize but may I ask who is calling?"

You are answering their question and being a little friendly and engaging, saying I apologize but may I ask who is calling, is just being respectful of them and asking the "Who is this?" question in a softer way.

And besides someone calling after 5 years, you gotta expect they may not immediately know who you are. If you were calling me, you'd go straight to voicemail since I don't answer numbers I don't recognize.


Can you even avoid it, I wonder. I would think that eventually you would most likely have to ask that question.

Perhaps you could have tried pretending you knew who she was by just asking how she was and just talk about yourself until something, some kind of clue helped you remember her.

But yeah, after reading Bradley's answer you could just say that you got a new phone which was true, so not much more to add.


Don't avoid it, instead keep the conversation exactly as you've had it!

Even in cases like "Hi is this Masked Man?" Again ask "Who is this?"

This time you got lucky as it was an old friend of yours but next time it could be a scammer: Not a very well known scam but one that terrifies me is all they need is any positive response from you: Then:"Is this ..." You:"Yes it is .." to put a hefty charge on your phone and then prove that you agreed to it (by of course editing the recording but essentially they have you saying yes to "do you agree to have this charge on your account".

Much better to deal with the awkwardness than deal with 20-50$ a month charge.

  • In these cases I have trained myself to just say "This is he", which avoids saying "yes". Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 22:12

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