Posted by: Jason | January 27, 2013

Speaking Clearly

Good evening everyone. I hope that you are keeping warm on this cold and snowy day. I had a very good day today with my family. We went to the Children’s Science Museum in Yahata and had a very good time. Very interesting.

Recently, at Christmas time, I went back to Canada for a few weeks. I flew from Japan, through San Francisco and then on to Toronto. Now, since I flew through San Francisco, I had to go through American customs. So, after a very long flight, I found myself standing line one of several lines of people waiting their turn to be interviewed by a customs official. As I was waiting, I was watching the different lines and I found myself staring at one in particular.

In this one line, the customs guard was slumped in his chair, chin in hand, and was speaking very loudly to the different people who came in front of him. Since my flight was from Narita, nearly everyone on the plane was Japanese and I could tell that most of them did not speak a lot of English. Each person stood in front of this customs official and he would bark:

“Whyooere?”

Every single person would look very blankly at him and obviously not understand. So, he would say louder, and quite angrily, “WHYOOERE?”

Finally, he would, with great apparent effort, sit up in his chair and say, in almost clear English, “Why … are… you… here?”

And this got me to thinking. This customs official obviously was being very rude. But, everyone, because they had no idea what he was saying, had no idea how to respond. And this is something that does happen quite often when you deal with people who are not familiar with dealing with people who don’t speak the language. I’ve also found that sometimes the worst offenders are those who have learned a second language and show absolutely no patience for those who are still learning. But, that’s another issue.

So, here’s my advice. The best, in my opinion, solution to this sort of thing is to be better at English than the person in front of you. This person was barely speaking English. It was so unclear that even I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying the first time or two. The chances that someone whose first language wasn’t English understanding this guy was virtually zero. So, when faced with this, speak very clearly and with confidence. Don’t be shy. Don’t apologize and say you are sorry. This person is being rude to you and you should not have to say sorry for that. Look the person in the eye and say, calmly and clearly:

“I didn’t understand that. Could you speak more slowly please?”

Don’t be shy about it though. You are not doing anything wrong. The other person is in the wrong here and by not backing down and not being shy, you are showing that you are not scared of this person. Be firm and polite and it will be much easier to get through things. Confidence counts for a great deal.

Have you ever had any difficult experiences where the person spoke so badly that you couldn’t understand? Let us know.

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