Avoiding Miscommunication: A Brief Guide to Using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet

Representation of alphabet.


Miscommunication can arise in a variety of situations, such as when talking on the phone in an area with bad reception or with a lot of background noise. This is especially frustrating if you’re trying to communicate an exact term, such as a name or a street address.

Using the NATO phonetic alphabet allows you to avoid miscommunication issues, by helping you spell out words in a way that is intelligible regardless of the situation. This can be valuable for everything from talking with tech support, to contacting emergency services. In fact, it’s so effective that there have been calls for using the NATO alphabet among medical professionals, where accurate communication can be a matter of life and death.

The following guide will explain to you how the NATO alphabet works, and how to use it. The concept behind it is very simple, so you will be able to implement it almost immediately and with good results.


The concept

The idea behind the NATO alphabet is very simple: you replace the letter you want to say with a word that starts with the same letter. For example:

  • B  is replaced by BRAVO
  • G  is replaced by GOLF
  • O  is replaced by OSCAR

While learning the actual NATO alphabet can be useful, the most important thing is to remember how the different letters are represented. By simply remembering this one principle, you can enjoy most of the benefits of the phonetic alphabet, without much effort on your part. Furthermore, this principle is useful in locations where people use different variants of the phonetic alphabet (such as the LAPD radio alphabet), as they all rely on the same principle.


The NATO phonetic alphabet

As you just saw, understanding the principle behind the alphabet allows you to enjoy most of its benefits, without having to learn the alphabet itself. However, you can still benefit from learning the alphabet, for two reasons. First, because it’s standardized and widely used, meaning that a lot more people are likely to recognize and understand it. Second, because the words in the alphabet were chosen based on extensive testing, as they ensure mutual intelligibility between speakers from different linguistic backgrounds.

The image below contains the NATO phonetic alphabet:

Chart containing all the letters in English, together with their corresponding code-word in the NATO phonetic alphabet (including pronunciation).


If you want to say a number, you simply say the whole word, with a few minor variations in pronunciation in some cases (compared to ‘regular’ English):

Chart containing numbers, together with their corresponding code-word in the NATO phonetic alphabet (including pronunciation).


The punctuation marks are referred to by name with a few exception: a hyphen (-) is referred to as a dash, and a period (.) is referred to as a stop, while a decimal point is referred to as a point or as a decimal.

(A full table, containing both the letters and the numbers is available: as an image and as a PDF, if you’re interested.)


Memorizing the alphabet

If you decide you want to learn the NATO alphabet, you can do it by using flashcards or a memorization software (such as Anki). You could also memorize the code words in order, preferably using a rhythm or a tune that makes them easier for you to remember.

Once you can roughly recall all the code words, start practicing by spelling out different words using the alphabet. These words can be anything you want: from random items you encounter, to the addresses of streets you pass by. If you want, you can also try spelling out random strings, such as those on license plates.


Other things to keep in mind

There are a few other things you should remember when using the alphabet, in order to ensure that you’re using it effectively:

  • Make sure to say the full word you are spelling out, before and after spelling it. This will help the other person understand what you are saying.
  • Make sure the person you’re talking to knows that you are spelling out a word and understands how you are doing it. If they’re not familiar with the concept of the phonetic alphabet, you can use the following pattern when spelling out words: “N as in November, O as in Oscar…”
  • When improvising, avoid words which can be easily confused with other words due to a similar-sounding initial letter (e.g. ban/pan), or where it’s difficult to isolate the initial letter (e.g. the ‘b’ in ‘brain’, which is pronounced together with the ‘r’).


Summary and conclusions

  • There is often miscommunication when trying to spell things out over the phone; this can be frustrating in some cases, and outright dangerous in others (for example, when telling emergency services your address).
  • To solve this, you can use the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, in order to spell out words.
  • If you don’t remember the official alphabet, you can improvise by using words where the first letter in the word corresponds to the letter you are trying to say.
  • Make sure to state the full word before and after spelling it out, and to let the listener know that you are going to spell it out using the phonetic alphabet.
  • If you’re improvising, avoid using words where the sound of the first letter is difficult to identify. The advantage of the official alphabet is that the words there were picked after extensive testing, in order to ensure intelligibility.


Who Should and Who Shouldn’t Eat Before Going Grocery Shopping

Image of groceries in a basket.


A conventional wisdom is that you should never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Intuitively, this makes sense: if you’re already full when you go to buy food, you’ll be less tempted to buy extra food items. However, studies on the topic discovered that this is not always the case. Rather, while this is true for people who are not overweight, people who are overweight sometimes buy more food if they eat before shopping.


What the research shows us

Studies show that for most people, eating before going grocery-shopping is a good idea:

  • One study found that short-term food deprivation, in terms of not eating for a few hours, leads people to buy more high-calorie products, such as candy and salty snacks.
  • Another study found similar results, so that when people are hungry, they are interested in buying more food items compared to when they are full.

However, neither one of these studies differentiated between overweight and normal-weight participants. On the other hand, studies which did examine the shopping patterns of overweight participants compared to participants with a “standard” weight, showed that there is a significant difference between the two groups:

  • A study which looked at purchasing behavior in a large supermarket found that people with a standard weight tend to purchase more food when they are hungry, while overweight people tend to purchase less food.
  • A different study found similar results, which showed that “normal individuals bought more food if they were deprived than they did if they had recently eaten. Overweight individuals actually bought more food if they had recently eaten than they did if deprived.”

Researchers are not entirely certain what leads to this difference. One suggestion is that for people with a standard weight, increased hunger leads to increased impulse buying, as evident in the fact they purchase more items than they expect to. Conversely, when overweight people eat before grocery shopping, they might become more focused on food, which preemptively increases their intention to buy extra food. This is reflected in the fact that people with a standard weight tend to overshoot their estimated bill when buying food on an empty stomach, while overweight participants tend to decrease both their estimated bill as well as the amount of food they buy in practice.


Disagreements, variations, and what works for you

It’s important to note that there are various discrepancies between different studies on the subject, possibly due to different methodologies (for examples, see this paper, this paper, or this one, all of which found slightly-conflicting results).

It’s also difficult to determine whether the fact that overweight people were hungrier is the reason why they purchased less food. It’s possible that they were more likely to be dieting, which explains both their hunger, as well as their reduced intention to purchase food (although one study did account for this and showed that the effect still appears). In addition, there was also variation in terms of how hungry participants were, and in some cases there was a difference between how low levels of hungers affected people, compared to high levels of hunger.

Overall, this means that we can’t be sure that if you’re overweight then you’re likely to buy more food if you’re full, but it certainly raises the possibility that this might be the case, and that the general notion of “never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach” isn’t necessarily true for everyone.

In addition, it’s important to remember that there is always individual variation. Some people with a normal weight might be motivated similarly to people who are overweight, and vice versa. Furthermore, the definition for ‘overweight’ is also not entirely clear, and can vary according to different sources.

Therefore, the best way to know for sure is to experiment yourself, and see what works better for you. One way to do this is to keep grocery shopping as you normally do, while paying attention to what you buy, and to how hungry you are at the time. It might be immediately obvious that when you’re hungry, you tend to buy tons of snacks. In cases when it is not so obvious, you can keep receipts from your purchases, and write on each one how hungry you were when buying the food.

You can also try to actively alternate between going grocery shopping while hungry and while full, and then compare the amount and type of food that you buy each time. To ensure that your results are accurate, try to minimize the influence of external variables, such as going shopping with other people versus going alone. It’s best to do this a few times in order to reduce the influence of these variables (which are known as confounds), but it’s likely that after one or two times you’ll already have a pretty clear answer.

Overall, it’s easy to point to the findings of just one paper, and popular media loves to simplify things and spread convenient generalizations. As you saw however, the truth is more complicated than that. At the end of the day, the important thing is to be aware of this complexity, and to understand that the most important thing is to find out what works for you.


Summary and conclusions

  • People who are not overweight generally tend to make less impulse purchases when they go grocery shopping on a full stomach.
  • Conversely, people who are overweight tend to actually buy less food if they go grocery shopping when hungry. This has been attributed to a reduction in the amount of food that these participants intend to buy.
  • There is variation between different studies, and between the individuals who participated in each study.
  • The best solution to finding what works for you, is to experiment and see which type of purchases you make when you’re hungry, and which ones you make when you’re full.


How to Create Image Captions that People Can Actually Read

People often pick the wrong font-color when creating image captions, or when pairing the color of a text with the color of its background in general. Doing this can make your text almost completely illegible. At the very least, this means people will struggle to read what you wrote, and become annoyed. More likely, they will just decide to not read it.

Fortunately, this issue is something which is easy to fix. The following examples will show you which common mistakes to avoid, and which guidelines you should follow in order to make your texts and image captions readable and aesthetically pleasing.


What NOT to do

Avoid placing light-colored text on a light background:


Similarly, avoid placing dark-colored text on a dark background:


Avoid relying only on color contrasts between the text and the background to ensure readability:


Doing this generally leads to text which is annoying to read, and which can be illegible to color blind people in some cases. It can work sometimes if you know what you’re doing, but you’re almost always better off not relying on it.


What you SHOULD do

Rely primarily on a light-dark contrast. For example, you can pair a dark-colored text with a light background:


You can also pair a light-colored text with a dark background:


If readability is your main concern, or if the background color is not consistent throughout, use a white text with a black outline, which can be easily read on any background:


Summary and conclusions

  • Create a contrast in brightness between the text and the background; avoid light texts on a light background, or dark texts on a dark background.
  • In addition, don’t rely only on color contrasts between the text and the background to achieve readability.
  • Try to pair light-colored texts with dark backgrounds, and dark-colored texts with light backgrounds.
  • If readability is your main concern, the best option is to use white text with a black outline, as it is legible on all backgrounds.