DEAR MISS MANNERS: I’ve just had another experience with someone who said something that I didn’t understand. I was at a pharmacy drive-up window for a COVID-19 test. My car window was open, and the communication took place over a poor speaker system while we both wore masks.
I said three times that I didn’t hear her. (I really did hear her, but I couldn’t understand her.) I then apologized and said I couldn’t understand what she was saying. She maintained her same cadence and sound level and repeated her question in exactly the same way every time.
The question/statement I couldn’t understand was “date of birth,” which had been combined into one word, hastily spoken without any questioning inflection. Instead of repeating this same phrase, wouldn’t it have been helpful to ask, “When were you born?” or, “Please tell me your birthday”?
I’ve noticed the younger generations tend to speak in a rapid-fire manner, and it’s very difficult to understand at times. I complimented one young woman at a hospital admissions desk because she was articulate and clear. She said she worked on her speech because it makes her interactions proceed smoothly and quickly.
Do you have the proper polite phrase to use to entice unclear and/or rapid speakers to rephrase the question or slow down?
GENTLE READER: Ask the person to please rephrase the question or slow down. Saying you could not understand -- or, worse, restating “What?” over and over again -- only prompts the speaker to repeat their question, usually with irritatingly increasing volume.
Miss Manners suggests that you heed your own advice and ask politely to have the question reworded. But please do so slowly and clearly, especially behind that mask.