Asking someone to repeat themselves when speaking is annoying enough to do once, but what if you still don’t understand and have to ask yet again?
For one reason or another, it’s common to be speaking with another person and have to ask for something to be repeated. Reasons for not hearing someone could include speaking volume, talking with their mouth full, an unfamiliar accent, or a bad phone connection. Polite ways to ask someone to repeat themselves include “I’m sorry, could you say that again?” or “Pardon?” Informal ways include “What?” or “Huh?!”
But what happens when the person repeats themselves, and you still didn’t manage to hear them? That’s where things can take a most unpleasant turn for everyone involved.
James failed to understand a barista and it got weird
James was ordering a coffee at his local coffee shop. He stood at the counter and placed his order with the female barista, Brittany. At the end of the order, as James was putting his billfold back in his pocket and walking away, Brittany said “By the way, I like your shirt!”
Perhaps he had mentally checked out since the transaction was complete, but for one reason or another he simply didn’t clearly hear Brittany’s comment. He knew something was said, but he didn’t know what.
“I’m sorry?” James said, turning back. “I didn’t catch that.”
“Your shirt,” Brittany said, pointing. “I like it!”
As Brittany was speaking, there was a boisterous laugh from across the room coupled with a blender of some sort behind the counter. James embarrassingly still hadn’t heard Brittany’s comment. All within a split second, he was forced to make a decision.
He could try any of the following:
- Just ask her to repeat herself again. “I’m so sorry… the noise… I still didn’t catch that!”
- Pretend to have heard her and just laugh, nod, or mumble a response.
- Just stand in awkward silence, non-verbally indicating that he hadn’t heard her.
- Blame his own poor hearing, true or not. “I apologize, I’m hard of hearing.”
- Perhaps Brittany truly is to blame. Maybe she’s not projecting her voice, or she has something in her mouth. In this instance, it wouldn’t be out of the question to ask her to speak up or more clearly.
- Ignore Brittany and keep walking. Perhaps a snub is less insulting than asking someone to repeat themselves time and again.
- Avoid the whole situation by pretending to take a phone call.
As it was, though, James kinda wanted to know what this woman was saying to him, so he took a big step back towards the register, leaned in, put his hand to his right ear, let out a little laugh, and said “I—I still didn’t… quite…”, hoping to get a third try at hearing without explicitly asking for it.
Brittany spoke up this time, much louder, and said “I LIKE YOUR SHIRT!” She even grabbed her own shirt with both of her hands to indicate “shirt”. She said this loud enough that several people in different areas of the coffee shop all turned and looked.
But wouldn’t you know it—James still hadn’t heard clearly. He continued to look on, puzzled. He was so fixated on the idea that she must have been saying something related to the coffee transaction that he never allowed his mind to open up to the idea that it was a simple unrelated compliment.
“Your shirt, motherfucker!” said a man at the end of the counter. James looked down at his shirt and remembered he was wearing a funny Rick & Morty shirt.
“Ohhhhh!,” James said, but it was too late. Brittany had moved on to helping the next customer in line. “Thank you, yeah, great show, huh?” James felt like a real jackass.
The solution to asking someone to repeat themselves multiple times isn’t always resolved, but it sure should be.
In this instance, someone else came to James’ rescue. In reality, many times we never wind up learning the message trying to be conveyed, and it can have disastrous consequences. In the office, trying to save face rather than asking your boss to repeat himself a third time even though you didn’t hear a critical piece of information could lead to your eventual firing. In medical situations, you’d better be damn sure you ask the doctor until you know with 100% certainty what was said or you could die.
The answer to this dilemma is truly a case-by-case basis. But at the end of the day, you really should make every effort to ensure you correctly receive the message. The foolproof way to achieve this is to simply blame yourself in some fashion, never the person speaking. If all else fails, ask for it in writing. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jefferson, I really seriously need to get my ears checked; I literally can’t hear anything. Can you please send me the assignment in writing? I’m so, so sorry for the trouble.”
My Hot Take
Dude, this is so me. I would estimate that I have to ask people to repeat themselves at least 10% of the time. I have a terrible ability to pick up on even the slightest dialects or accents. Plus, I am super tall, so a lot of the time people’s voices project into my chest area. I have zero ability to decipher someone’s voice over other noise in a loud bar. And I’m frequently lost in my own world, not paying attention. Add those things together and I just don’t hear everything I should.
My solution varies a lot, but generally I won’t ask someone to repeat themselves a fourth time. If I find myself repeatedly asking someone to repeat themselves within the same conversation, I eventually give up and just start nodding and praying I’m not agreeing to anything like wearing a puffy pirate shirt on the Today Show.