I'm sorry, I can't understand you
May 31, 2010 12:20 PM   Subscribe

You're at a loud party, or you have a bad phone connection, or the other person has a thick accent. Whatever the culprit is, you're having trouble understanding what the other person is saying. You've already asked them to repeat what they were saying, but still, no dice. How do you handle this politely and gracefully?
posted by estlin to Human Relations (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm sorry, I don't understand! It's loud in here/I have a bad signal. Let's chat later on instead, shall we?"

*hang up/ move along*

In the case of the thick accent, just ask a question that points in a different direction, and otherwise stall until help arrives.
posted by hermitosis at 12:23 PM on May 31, 2010

Yeah, I have trouble with this due to a semi broken iPhone. Very quiet, so I use speakerphone when I can, and when I can't I try to make clear I can't hear and get off the phone as quickly as possible. If it's important I try to find a quiet spot and call back, if not return the call when I can.
posted by yellowbinder at 12:27 PM on May 31, 2010

I see where you're coming from, but I look at this from the other end of the etiquette spectrum: If you're in a place where talking on the phone is not convenient or appropriate, don't answer. Whomever is calling you can leave a message and/or you can call them back when the time is more appropriate for you. The ubiquity of today's telephonic communication is a real disconnect from yesterday's apologizing for intruding simply by writing a letter. It's ok to not be available all the time.
posted by carsonb at 12:28 PM on May 31, 2010 [6 favorites]

"I'm SO sorry, but I still didn't get it - can we try one more time?" *smile*

If there is no progress, "Ack, Still not getting it, we'll have to try later - or maybe you could send me an email?"
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:28 PM on May 31, 2010

Oh, but given other circumstances a quick "come again?" or "I'm sorry?" or "this reception! One more time please?" works. Offering to call back on another phone, if available, would also be polite.
posted by carsonb at 12:30 PM on May 31, 2010

In the case of a bad phone connection... excuse yourself from the conversation and make sure it's clear that your phone is the problem, not the quality of conversation. Or, ask if they can text/e-mail you relevant details. Or, tell them you will call them back.

In the case of a loud party... assuming you want to continue the conversation, use the noise as an excuse to manuever the person into a more private setting. (Not creepily.)

In the case of an accent or language barrier, request that the person re-phase what they're saying. Chances are, they will use simpler phrasing to make themselves understood.
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:31 PM on May 31, 2010

I should add that I'm particularly interested in situations where someone needs assistance immediately - such as talking to a client with an accent over the phone. Would it be terribly rude to ask someone else to take over the call?
posted by estlin at 12:33 PM on May 31, 2010

"this environment is too noisy. Please text me."
posted by boo_radley at 12:38 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

estlin, in that situation I'd try for an email normally, unless there is a specific match - like the caller is french and you have someone french nearby.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2010

Sometimes at work I field calls from Iraq or Afghanistan or Kuwait etc....I don't have the luxury of asking them to text.

If it is simply a bad phone connection I acknowledge it-lots of times I ask them to spell words or do the alpha tango foxtrot whatever alphabet. If I am talking to military I stay on the phone till I get it, period.

If it is a bad stateside call I acknowledge the bad connection-if it's really bad and I cannot understand them I ask them to call back, and wait for them to (hopefully) hang up and try again.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:42 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my experience, the only way to handle this is to assume / pretend that the fault is ENTIRELY yours. "I'm so sorry, there's this horrible buzzing on my phone, let me have someone else call you." "I'm so sorry, I'm recovering from an ear infection, is there any way we can do this by email?" "I'm so sorry, I don't know what my problem is, but I simply can't understand you. No -- it's not you, I promise. Let me see if I can get someone else."
posted by KathrynT at 1:02 PM on May 31, 2010 [13 favorites]

I just say my hearing is getting bad and ask them as nicely as I can to repeat it until I get it. My hearing is sort of deteriorating, normal function of age, I think.
posted by mareli at 1:14 PM on May 31, 2010

Ask the person to speak more slowly.
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:38 PM on May 31, 2010

I should add that I'm particularly interested in situations where someone needs assistance immediately - such as talking to a client with an accent over the phone. Would it be terribly rude to ask someone else to take over the call?

Go somewhere more quiet to take the call - another room, the hallway, outside. If you answer the phone to your clients knowing there is a lot of background noise that, in itself, is unhelpful. And yes, if I can't have a meaningful conversation with you a conversation with somebody else who can help me would be appreciated.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:48 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Usually I can get part of what they are saying... "I need to order a blabbitty-blah-blah" so I'll repeat back as much as I heard. "I'm sorry, what is it you need to order?" "I'm sorry, I still didn't get it... could you say it slower?" "Hmmm... nope, I'm afraid I still don't understand, can you spell it?" Usually I can get it then.

If I've got a heavily accented Spanish-speaker on the line I'll usually tell the person, "I'm sorry, I seem to be having trouble understanding, may I transfer you to someone who speaks Spanish?" Other-accented callers are SOL on that score, and I'll just keep asking them to repeat it until either I get it or they give up and put someone else on the line.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:47 PM on May 31, 2010

If I've got a heavily accented Spanish-speaker on the line I'll usually tell the person, "I'm sorry, I seem to be having trouble understanding, may I transfer you to someone who speaks Spanish?"

I used to work in a call center as a bilingual representative. At our call center, this exact scenario was considered extremely rude--if the person wanted to speak Spanish, they would've pressed 2 (or whatever) for Spanish, not waited (or pressed 1 or whatever) to get an English speaker.
posted by saveyoursanity at 4:59 PM on May 31, 2010

I ran into this with my handicapped dad. Sadly, texting or calling back (given that this was in person) wasn't an option. I just said, "I'm sorry Dad, I didn't understand that," five billion times. I don't know what else you could do in person, really.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:03 PM on May 31, 2010

great points above. I'm mostly thinking of international calls, where I find sometimes I just need to slow things down, it can take time to get used to a particular way the person speaks. Try not to rush. Speak slowly yourself. And for manners KathrynT has it - just acknowledge *you* are having difficulty and ask for their patience and indulgence.

And yes, by all means ask people to repeat again, phrase in a different way, spell things out, or write things down if it's feasible. Ask them to help you understand.
posted by Joad at 7:18 PM on May 31, 2010

I end up talking to people from various countries with varying levels of fluency in English for my job, so I've run into this. Aside from what other people have suggested, I've found that trying to parse what they are saying and repeating it back to them helps a lot. For example if you hear "Cxx yxx xxxx xxxx cxll Joe?" you can say "Do you want me to call Joe?", and they can respond with a simple yes or no. Basically you have to realize that you are not going to be able to understand 100% of what they are saying, so you have to piece together what you can and verify the important parts with them.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:28 AM on June 1, 2010

I spend half my life on calls with people who are other countries on bad phones and often, because of time zones, one of us it either up to early or too late which makes communication that much more difficult.

What I do is back up to the last thing I understood and repeat – “Cletus, you were saying that Brandine might not want any more children – especially from you – and then you said that you were considering adopting some critters. I had a little difficulty understanding the next part – are you interested in a possum?”

Also, if I'm having trouble, I assume they are too and ask them if they have questions, repeat myself, and ask if they have questions again.

Do this over and over again. Unless texting is an option.

At a loud party, I’d go somewhere not loud, or just smile and indicate it’s too loud to hear whatever marvelous charming witty thing the person was trying to say.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:40 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older Purchase Mini Blinds Online Or Local?   |   Minnesota Furniture Removal Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.