How to Respond to Someone When You Can't Understand What They're Saying

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When engaging in light small-talk with someone who has a heavy accent or a quiet voice, you may often find yourself asking, "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" to which they respond by repeating what they just said. If you don't hear it the second time, the situation could become very awkward, very fast. So, what do you do in this situation? In this guide, I will show you a few tactful ways to respond.

  • When they're reiterating for the first time, and you can tell that you're not going to be able to understand, you need to act fast, while they're still talking. Divert your attention immediately to your cell phone as if it were vibrating, pull it out of your pocket, and look intently at it for just a moment, and then return it to your pocket and apologize, "Sorry, I thought it was important. What were you saying?" This will give you one more chance to hear what the person was saying, and it will pin the blame on the cell phone.

  • Smoothly change the subject. If someone with a heavy accent asks you, "sojoogetfinasheladefrcollj?" pretend to be distracted by something over the person's shoulder, and say something relevant about it, like, "Oh, geez, I hate when people touch each other like that in a family park. Get a motel room..." Almost everyone experiences Attention Deficit Disorder symptoms every once-in-a-while, so people will quickly forgive you for it. If possible, start a new conversation from your observation, and ditch the old one.

  • If you're very comfortable with the person you're talking to, turn it into a tongue-in-cheek racial/social joke. Say something like, "bro, you're talkin' like a black person," or, "is that how everyone talks in your trailer park?"

  • When someone asks you a question outside of a conversation, and you can't understand them the second time, once again turn it into a joke. "Sorry, I don't speak any English at all," is a classic. Please note: you will have to quickly analyze the person asking the question, to make sure that the joke is appropriate for the situation, and that the person won't take offence.

  • When someone asks you a question outside of a conversation, and you can't understand them the second time, respond with a negative, hesitant, regretful "Mmm," and then shake your head, as if to say no. Because the "Mmm" has three different suggestive properties, it should sufficiently answer pretty much every question. It's good to accompany the "Mmm" with a facial expression that says "sorry," to insure that if they were asking a favor of you, you don't look rude.

Tips & Warnings

  • Use Step 3 only when you're completely confident that you have a comfortable relationship with the person.
  • These methods should only be used if the conversation is light and casual. If you were to change the subject while someone was sharing their heart with you, it could turn out badly.
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