A telephone call might start like this

*ring* *ring*
Alice: Hello, who is this?
Bob: Hey, Bob here. Is this Alice?
Alice: Yes, indeed.

Now in school I learned to use this for objects in my close range and that for objects further away.

Is there a reason why we use "who is this" instead of "who are you"? I realize it sounds more polite this way, but can't help to feel grammatically awkward.

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    "Who is this?" is just an idiomatic way to ask, "Who is on the other end of this phone conversation?" (or, much more stiltedly, "With whom am I speaking?") Interesting how we say "Who's this?" on the telephone, but "Who is it?" (or, "Who's there?") at the doorway. – J.R. Dec 19 '13 at 15:18
  • @J.R. And that "interesting" part motivated my question :) – npst Dec 19 '13 at 15:27
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    I regard “Who is this?” as practically equivalent to “Who am I?”, and suggest saying “Who's calling, please?” instead. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Dec 19 '13 at 20:17
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    @Susan, If you're going to use whom you might also want to change the word order: "To whom am I speaking?". For learners, if you are learning American English, you may ignore whom altogether, and just use who. – The Photon Dec 20 '13 at 2:36
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    I would recommend being more polite and saying something like "May I ask who's calling?", but only on grounds of politeness, not because I think anyone would misunderstand "Who is this?" (Which, to be honest, I doubt.) – snailplane Dec 20 '13 at 12:25

It's true that this and that are relative to distance. For phone conversations, the distance is metaphorical. In the case of phone conversations, "this" is who you are talking to. If you heard someone in the background talking (i.e. a voice in the distance on the other side of the line) you could say "Who's that?"

  • This answer explains nicely, why it's "this" instead of "that". But If I met a person face to face, unsure about their identity, I would never ask them "Who is this?". Why is it common on the phone? (feel free to expand your answer :)) – npst Dec 20 '13 at 22:38

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