‘Great’, I thought. This will be painless’. The caller continued “ Is [name of company] #( )*????!!!?” The caller wasn’t using profanity. Whatever he was saying was, however, unintelligible. As I understood the question up to the last word, I just responded, “Excuse, me, but you are asking ‘Is [name of company]. . . what?” The gentleman (and I am being polite here) repeated the entire question without changing the pronunciation of the final mystery word. Besides speaking as if he had a wad of glue in his mouth, he had already raised the volume of his voice a few decibels. The increase in volume didn’t help. Trying not to offend or upset him further, I apologized, “Sir, I’m sorry, but there is some construction noise in our building, and I am having trouble understanding your question.”
Understanding someone who speaks poorly in any language can be a challenge—particularly if you can only hear their voice. Real-time video and chat options may help to break the comprehension barriers to conversation temporarily, but what if those options aren’t available? I spoke with a customer last week who started the conversation with “I just have a simple question . . .”
The caller again spoke even louder, without changing anything else in his speech. The speed, enunciation, diction and clarity of the words were the same. And because the question did not contain enough information to establish any contextual clues, I couldn’t even quess at what the last word might be. So, instead of asking him to repeat himself yet again, I said, “Oh, let me connect you with someone who can answer that question . . .one moment.” I didn’t actually have to transfer him. He hung up, but not before calling me a “Stupid b ^*)h”. His diction was perfect.
At the end of the day, I spent about two hours asking professionals on LinkedIn and other venues how they handled speaking with someone by phone if they couldn’t understand what the other person was saying. A lot of the suggestions involved using email, which was not an option for me. Others suggested using the ‘I’m sorry, we have a bad connection’ excuse. Others had more cryptic answers that really were not helpful. One expert said ‘Seek first to understand . . .then to be understood.’ Yeah, well, thanks. I love Stephen Covey, too, but the question is ‘how, exactly, should I be seeking to understand?’. Forgive me, I’m a little dense. Can you go over the process, step by step, please?
The answers kept flooding my inbox. If my caller had stayed on the line, perhaps I could have dredged up the last word to the surface. Or, perhaps, the flood would have just prolonged the frustration of misunderstanding. Certainly,it was not the first time I had felt trapped in a similar conversation. Years ago, I found myself in a remote corner of the rural south—the kind of place where you get that ‘you’re- not- from -around -here’ stare when you ask for directions. To be fair, I’ve encountered the unintelligible right here on Long Island—even Manhattan, as well as Texas, Detroit, Las Vegas and Arizona. I wish I could stop there. Incomprehensible speech, whether it is due to mumbling, poor diction or enunciation, talking too fast, slurring words, running words together, mispronouncing words, a heavy accent, or a combination of these, is not limited to any region or group of people. It is EVERYWHERE. And I’m positive none of the unintelligible speech experiences I’ve reported here were the result of a speech disorder—because in every case, the speaker also used at
least one syllable of profanity that was clearly intelligible.
So, why don’t people just speak clearly? Laziness, indifference, drugs, something else? I’m not suggesting any correlation between clarity of speech and clarity of thought, although many of our customers have specifically stated they “ don’t’ read” when I’ve offered to send them more information about our company’s services. Hmmm. But these people did have email. Perhaps our whole concept of literacy—even intelligence has changed to the point that clarity of speech is no longer considered important? Or. perhaps in our
hyper-digitized society, excess multitasking has created a society of manic mumblers. Perhaps we have become dependent upon technology to “communicate” for us. And clarity of speech is therefore becoming extinct. Perhaps the end of the world will simply be a return to the beginning---with monosyllabic ughs and grunts or some other paraverbage taking the place of the language we used to use. Who knows?
If you do, or have your own strategy for understanding people you can’t understand, please share it! As for the customer who mistook me for a 'b^*)h', I later thought he might have asked,“Is [name of company] everywhere?” No, that couldn’t be it. The word he used had just one syllable.