Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
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Say That Again?

I have this ongoing issue that, on the surface, might seem ridiculous but is impacting my interactions with just about everyone I come into contact with. At home it's no big deal because, of course, we're much more worried about how we treat strangers and what they think about us than the people we love. So whenever this little predicament of mine arises, which as I said is almost daily, I feel like an enormous ass and yet I cannot find a solution.

Maybe you can help?

Let me preface my predicament with a reminder that I am completely socially awkward. Oh, you think if we met we'd be great friends and we would paint each other's nails and braid each other's hair and debate who's cuter, Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling but nay, my friend, NAY. I would awkwardly ask you question after question in an effort to deflect attention from myself. Should the conversation falter I would increase the volume of my voice - that's what happens - I get loud when I'm uncomfortable and so I would proceed to loudly peck at you like some kind of demented chicken. I overcompensate, see? But for all the external machinations I'm internally quiet. A dead zone on the inside. Silently floating above myself, observing our conversation like a tennis match, dying inside as I analyze my boisterous overcompensating, shaping my thumb and forefinger into a gun and shooting myself in the side of the head at each ridiculous sentence I utter, in physical pain at how stupidly awkward I am.

And then I would go home and repeat our conversation in my head, cringing as I remember all the stupid things I said. Later, while getting ready for bed, more stupid things I said would occur to me and I would wonder whether that one thing I said offended you. After that, at about three in the morning I would wake up remembering that one thing I said that you may or may not have been offended by and then I would debate Facebooking you an apology, just in case. But then I would tell myself that maybe you weren't offended by that one thing I said, maybe you got what I was trying to say and Facebooking you would only make me look like the obsessive, analytical psycho that I am and, well, I can't type this paragraph anymore it's giving me anxiety.

The reason I bring all this social anxiety to the table is this little issue of mine I'm about to share with you involves social interaction with strangers. Here's the deal: when it comes to vocally relaying to someone that I didn't hear what they just said I am at a dead loss. What I mean to say is that any phrase I use to say "I didn't hear you" makes me feel like an enormous dumbass.


"Excuse me?" - Excuse me is irksome. People say excuse me when they burp or when they bump into someone. I don't see the correlation with saying "excuse me" in response to not hearing what someone says. If someone says something I don't hear and I respond thusly I feel like I'm apologizing for a non-existent fart.

"Pardon?" - This one just doesn't work for me. Issuing the word "Pardon?" or it's cousin "Pardon me?" when I don't hear something feels more awkward then opting for a foreign language. What? Are you the governor and you need to pardon me for not hearing you? Also, pardon feels very British. Submitting to using pardon makes me feel like I should start bandying about words like "arse" and "blimey" and "flat". Blimey mate! I didn't hear what you said and I feel like an arse! I use the term "pardon" and before you know it I'm spelling words like "colour" and "realise" and then I'll just go full-blow Madonna on you and she isn't fooling anyone. WE ALL KNOW YOU'RE FROM MICHIGAN, "MADGE"! Pardon comes out of my mouth about as easily as that one poop you took after being constipated for several days except unlike you I don't feel relieved after saying pardon, I just feel awkward.

"What?" - I went with this option for the longest time. Problem is, it comes across as rude. Where pardon feels too fancy and formal, what feels short and rude. When the barista asks if I want room for cream and sugar and I shout "What?" across the counter I feel like a mannerless jerk-off. I reserve "What?" for Serge:

Him: Are you going to the gym today?

Me: What?



Him: WHAT?


Him: HUH?

Which brings me to the last option: "HUH?" - Huh is What's hillbilly cousin. You say "Huh?" to the barista asking you if you want room for cream and sugar and you'll get a little something extra in that coffee you ordered - and I'm not talking about a flavored syrup.

So that leaves me with what I've been using for the past several years. It's the only compromise I've reached having not been able to bring myself to use any of the above options. When I don't hear something someone says I issue forth a very self-conscious "Say that again?"

Which is admittedly just as awkward as some of the above options because there I am running around demanding strangers repeat themselves instead of politely informing them I didn't hear them. Still, it seemed like my best alternative. But, more often than not, when I say "Say that again?" the person isn't accustomed to hearing that phrase and then they have to ask me to repeat myself which sends us spiraling into a vortex of hellish questioning.

Am I being psychotically analytical about this whole thing? But even if I'm being psychotically analytical about it all it's still who I am and so what do I do? Are there options that aren't occurring to me? What do you say when you don't hear someone?


Because so many of you are keen on the expression "Sorry?" as a form of relaying you didn't hear something I feel I must add it to my list of unacceptable phrases. Again, like "Pardon?" it feels very British and formal particularly because of the way you have to raise your voice at the end to make the word into a question. Sor-REE? Ick. I also don't like the apologetic tone. A good half the time you don't hear someone it isn't your fault and so the apology feels odd. Kind of like saying "excuse me" when you didn't do anything. Excuse me for what? Not hearing you? Additionally, when people say "Sorry?" to me after not hearing what I said it sometimes throws me off. For a second I wonder what they're apologizing for and then my brain processes that they didn't hear me and then there's the awkward pause while I think back to what I said that they didn't hear.

I know. I'm being difficult. But do you see my dilemma now? On the bright side, I could possibly consider the "Sorry, what was that?" option someone mentioned in the comments. "What was that?" is preferable to my usual "Say that again" as the reason I don't like "Say that again" is that it's a demand. "What was that?" is in the same vein as "Say that again" except it's a question instead of a demand and so it feels less rude. So, that's a step in the right direction. Also. I know, I'm insane. Try being married to me.

Reader Comments (51)

I say "Sorry?" as in "Sorry I didn't hear you could you please repeat yourself?" but obviously you can't say all that so it just gets shortened to sorry. I'm British though, so not sure if that's as awkward as "pardon?' for you.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Perhaps a less rude sounding option would be "Sorry, what?" and failing that simply nod and smile. The only thing worse than asking someone to repeat is having to ask them to repeat more than once. I always feel like a huge dufus if I fail to comprehend what the other person is saying more than once and rather than ask them to repeat themselves YET AGAIN I will simply nod and smile or nod with and accompanying mhmmmm. At that point I'd feel more stupid for asking them to repeat again than having no idea what I'm mindlessly nodding about. Socially awkward is my middle name so I totally get what you're talking about LOL.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Like the person above, I say, "I'm sorry?" which gets the point across that you didn't hear them but not because you weren't listening. And it doesn't come off as rude.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKelli

I usually go with, "What was that?" which isn't the best. I have pondered this exact predicament. It's hard to ask this question without sounding somehow rude!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMJ

Count me as another that uses "Sorry?" to indicate I didn't hear someone or understand what they said. I find that it pretty much always works, and also sounds polite (but not like you walked off the set of Downton Abbey or something).

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSBM

I find myself so nervous during social interaction (am permanently in middle school) I miss entire chunks of conversation. I usually go with "i'm sorry I didn't hear you, or I'm sorry what was that?" can not tell you how relieved I am to hear someone else has the same problems, my child entering the social world of elementary school has been pure torture gah. i would advise you to avoid just smiling and nodding, i have tried that and fear i look like quite the moron, though it works for my 89 year old grandma.


March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersarah beth

I/we/Brits (like Jess above), would simply say 'Sorry?' as in sorry, what did you say...maybe that is a British thing!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA

I'm with several other commenters in saying, "Sorry?" or "I'm sorry?", usually accompanied by turning one ear towards them a little bit to emphasize that I'm trying hard to listen, but just didn't hear (this certainly comes from the fact that my mother is deaf in one ear and frequently has to ask people to repeat themselves and, when she does so, she turns her good [left] ear toward the speaker to increase the odds that she'll hear...and I turn my left ear too -- behavior learned as a very young child from observing my mother!). As for having to ask someone to repeat a second time, I find a little self-deprecation goes a really long way. Something like, "I'm sorry, sometimes my hearing is so bad...I still didn't catch what you said."

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

P.S. -- I was born and raised in the U.S. by parents also born and raised in the U.S., so I don't think the "Sorry?" approach is more British than American.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

I like using "Sorry, what was that" ? With my eyebrows up and quizzical with a sincere look in my eyes that are trying to convey the message of "I really do want to hear what you are trying to say, so please repeat". Although I'm also socially awkward and I also ask question after question in order to get the attention off of me. If I'm telling the story my face feels like it's on fire and I can feel the awkwardness from head to toe. OY.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina

I second what Sarah Beth said - I usually say "I'm sorry, what was that?" or "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you?" (sometimes followed by an awkward half-laugh or a self-deprecating "I'm getting older and can't hear as well", which is just SO DUMB as I'm only almost 35).

If I forget my manners, I'll say "Hmm?" and then feel bad that I'm both socially awkward and rude.

My husband gets the "WHAT?! Speak UP!" because he's such a low talker, I'm afraid I'm agreeing to wear a ruffled pirate shirt (a la Seinfeld).

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKat

I just say, "Sorry, what was that?" or "What's that?" with kind of raised eyebrows and a bit of a smile so people know I'm interested in hearing what was said; I just didn't catch it the first time.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKati

Kat, that's "PUFFY SHIRT."

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

I usually say something like, "I'm sorry--I didn't catch that," and hope to high heavens that I catch it the second time they say it. I'm rather hard of hearing, and usually end up having to smile blandly and nod just because I didn't catch it the second time. Of course, what then happens is that they've asked me a question and are awaiting a response I don't know I'm supposed to provide.

Yeah. Socially awkard as well. There certainly seems to be a lot of us!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaith

Kat, that's "PUFFY SHIRT."

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

I say something like "sorry, I didn't catch that/what did you say?". You're right, though, the options you list above are kind of clunky or awkward.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteph

I use Pardon Me because I feel like it's less rude, even thought it's not always my fault I didn't hear. You know how men love to talk to you with their backs turned to you, around a corner, and over running water all at the same time? Yeah, me too.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjeneria

I don't have a suggestion beyond, "Sorry?" But I did want to share that I went to college in Ohio, and people from Cincinnati (and, as I recall, no other area of Ohio or elsewhere) would say, "Please?" when they didn't hear you. And it was an up-talking, begging-toned "please?" So odd. The first time someone said it to me was a professor in class, and I JUST caught myself from saying, "Please what?" But I always inwardly giggled after that when someone said it.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBEllen

I'm a fan of "I'm sorry, what was that?" or "I'm sorry, could you repeat that/say that again?" With family, I say "pardon", but I'm a Brit (living in Tennessee) who is unfailingly polite. Most people who need me to repeat myself (being a Brit in Tennessee means it happens a lot) just say "Huh?", so there's always that.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZoë

I just go with the truth: "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I usually say "Sorry, I missed that" or just "I missed that - what?"

If I'm feeling feisty, I usually go with 'SAY IT AGAIN, MOTHER F-ER!' I find it really improves the conversational quality.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersarah

i want to be sarah's friend :) i just go with could you repeat that please, or sorry, i didn't catch that. sorry and please just put people at ease.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatty

I find myself saying, "One more time?"

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I think we would actually get along great because I'm incredibly socially awkward in the opposite way and I LOVE it when other people do all the talking. I had jury duty recently and while I was waiting to be called I got to know the woman in front of me and we ended up talking all day - or rather she talked and I listened and answered questions, and occasionally I asked her a question, and that was fine. I am in awe of people who can do that because when I get nervous my brain shuts down and I can't think of anything to say. And I also can't hear or process things as well when I'm nervous, so I nod and smile a lot, or say "I'm sorry, what was that?" a lot (unless it's my husband; I just yell "WHAT?" at him). As for obsessing over what you said, I am still obsessing over some awkward conversations I had weeks ago. And I can't tell you how many times people have tried to talk to me and then avoided me like the plague forever after because of the horrible awkwardness. My best friends (and my husband) are people who are easy to talk to and keep the conversation going. I would trade my problem for yours any day!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth B

I'm with everyone else - I usually say, "I'm sorry?" and try to adopt a very Canadian "up-ending" to the phrase. That way, they know I'm apologetic, asking a question, and quite possibly hard-of-hearing (even if it was that I wasn't paying attention fully but something uttered suddenly piqued my interest).

So, basically sometimes I'm an asshole but still don't want to drive home that point. Don't overthink these things - people rarely care what others think or give a moment's thought to actions of others. We're all a little to self-absorbed to notice. Hope that offers comfort!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

I am an American who's lived in London for ten years. We're moving back to the states and just yesterday, i was debating about whether or not I would teach my daughter to say 'pardon' the way her posh English cousins do, or just allow her to demand 'whaaat' like her mom and every other American child. My daughter is 5 months old. I have no idea why I laboured over this conundrum, other than it deflects worry from the epic forthcoming transatlantic move. Now I know I am not alone--a very serendipitous post, you rock!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEsmeandme

Monica, lately I have been saying "Please repeat?". Its short, sweet, to the point. No apologies, no formalities. Girl, I know you have bigger things than this to worry about!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Buck

You could use the line my husband uses 50 times a day with me, "What's that?"

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRonna

I usually go with the "I don't hear so well, please say that again". (I don't hear well; I blame that on my father's 69 mustang with the really loud stereo when I was a wee tot in the back seat next to the speakers) Plus, the person speaking is sympathetic that you don't hear well, so they speak louder and more clealy for the rest of the conversation. It works great.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

In Cincinnati, everyone says "please" when they don't hear something and want it repeated. This works fine in the greater Cincinnati area. When you go somewhere else, people look at you like you're an idiot if you try to use please this way.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill

I was going to suggest "Sorry?" which is what I always say and I thought maybe it's because I'm Canadian and we're polite like that. Then I read your addendum. And now all I can say is, does this come up a lot? Maybe you have a hearing problem?

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBec

Hmm...I often end up saying, "Pardon?" or "Pardon me?" which always used to sound weird to me, but now that I've been saying if for a while I'm used to it and like it. I also like, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you..." instead of "Pardon", but Pardon seems to me to sum it all up in one simple, polite word. And you really do get used to it!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHanni

Monika, I would totally dig your social awkwardness! I'm ok now, but it has taken me many years to smooth my rough edges (I'm ~10 years older than you!) The "excuse me", "pardon", and "sorry" options are overly apologetic though generally socially accepted. The problem is that then there are many people who still don't get it that you didn't hear them and they need to repeat themselves! I have started forcing myself to smile (even when I am not in the mood to smile) and look directly at the person and straight out say, "Could you repeat that, please?" The smile and eye contact soften it capture their full attention, so then the interaction goes better. So many times we are speaking to people and not giving our full attention or getting it in return, out of awkwardness, busyness, or just plain rudeness.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

'Sorry' works. It's not apologetic in tone within the context of indicating to a person that you didn't hear what they just said. It's effective and polite- if you can think of something better, use it.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

true story. a big scary guy bumped into me by my 6th grade locker. i said excuse me- he YELLS out did you fart? i died and melted into a puddle on the linoleum. i still can not say excuse me without blushing like a 12 year old. i go with could you repeat that please.


March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercarrie

Us Brits, formal til we die! What about hmmmm? I often do that, as well as huh?

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA

I have a very difficult time following conversations ( probably due to ADD) and will often find my eyes drifting tthe background---wall color.decor, or whatever is going on out there including any music in the background. It's really disturbing and seems to be getting worse with age. Worse than anything is my lame attempts to pretend that I heard what was said. I hate to admit that I have been distracted but yeah, I usually apologize and ask what I missed while away.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergina

There's a book you might find interesting as well as helpfulL Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Roughly 30-50% of our society are introverts and the author makes a powerful case for the powers of introspection.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

if i cannot understand what someone is saying to me i repeat back what i think i might have heard which can bring about silly telephone translations that theyll either think are funny or get confused or will actually repeat themselves. you're welcome

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlarissa

Okay, you really aren't that bad. Truly, you come across lovely! And fun!

I say, "I'm sorry I didn't hear that" ALL. THE. TIME. No shame in not hearing.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz aka EDW

I get it. I get it all.
I bartend to force myself to be social. And in return, I do not have to share one iota of myself. I just listen. A lot.
Or try to. It's noisy behind that bar. And they're drunk. Or about to be. I find myself asking people to repeat themselves on an hourly basis.
"Say wha-wha?" -my go to when I really want to say "speak up fool".
"One more time?" -when adding a tilt-a-head move to this with a smile... It can work.
I would throw a "sorry" in front of those but I quickly became tired of apologizing. A smile/one more time combo has become much more convenient. For me.
At the end of my night (3am), it's me heading home solo with a footlong subway, an extreme amount of diet coke and blogs awaiting to read.
So I get it.
Random person: "you're so fun! Let's go hang out some time!"
Me: "you bet!" (which translates to... If I'm not being paid to be in a room with more than 1 other person... It's never gonna happen. )
Unless of course they can handle my bottomless vodka, me saying "wha wha" every 5 minutes, and please don't ask me any personal questions unless you're prepared to get an answer spewed with the speed of light. ( you have volume... I have the fast talker syndrome)....
I still get it.
And Monica? Its ok.
"One more time?"
Add grin.
End scene.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

I always go with "what was that?" It seems the clearest, least rude sounding, and doesn't confuse people.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Well isn't this interesting timing? I developed this weird ringing in my ear (high frequency) and went to an audiologist to have my hearing tested. I lost 25% of my hearing in my left ear! Which explains why I always have to make people repeat things. Mostly I say "I didn't hear you, could you repeat that?" or just "one more time..."

It's frustrating.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCassie

Ok, so as a little multinational experiment I just jotted down all the versions spoken during one two hour management meeting at our office - it's amazing how often people don't hear the first time round.
Our meeting was conducted is English but the different nationalities used the following expressions:
Russian - sorry
New Zealand - I can't hear you
Germany - Sorry
UK - sorry, I missed that
Germany - huh?
UK - What's that?
UK - Ay?
Australia - Sorry
French - excuse me
Belgium - what?

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbadger

Please don't take this the wrong way but: perhaps you could try to focus on the fact that people (and of course I do not mean those who love you of whom there are no doubt many) generally don't care that much about you. I don't mean you personally or specifically but as a general rule. What I mean is--all this social anxiety, really when you break it down, is very self-involved. You spend WAY more time worrying about what other people think of you than they will every actually spend concerned with your minutia. Would you ever spend that much time judging someone else? Of course not, you're too worried about yourself! That's true of most everyone. It's a cognitive shift in thinking and you really can retrain your brain with some effort. Also, I know this is annoying anxiety is a component of many diagnoses of clinical depression. Certain meds help with it. Just sayin'.

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterE.

I'm another one who says: "Sorry -- I didn't quite catch that," and it works for me. It makes perfect sense, especially if you're at a party or in a restaurant or a room where there's a lot of noise.

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamsin

I have also used "say again?" which I thought was cool when I first heard a radio 'ham' say it.
I stopped because I wondered if it sounded a bit too affected.

However, now that I think about it, it's maybe the quickest, clearest, least rude expression of all.

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamsin

As a person who seems to be constantly apologizing (my husband gets after me and I apologize for apologizing, how sad is that?) and who can't hear and do anything else at the same time (used to, but then had a baby, shot my multitasking skills to hell in a bassinet, lemme tell you), I go with "sorry, what did you say?" Only I'm not one for enunciation, so it comes out "sorry, whaddya say?" Which is a damn shame now that I live abroad where English is not the mother tongue and so I get a lot of "hvad?" (pronounced "vaaaah" 'cause Danes are not about pronouncing all the lovely letters they have at their disposal, and it means "what?") in response. So a conversation with me involves a lot of "what?" "what?" "whaddya say?" "sorry, what?" and if I am speaking to the aforementioned husband, "I can't HEAR YOU!"

April 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArchaeogoddess

Great post!! I also have trouble breaking the ice with people! It usually takes 5-10 minutes of chatting to finally be comfortable. But, I think it's perfect that you ask people questions. Perfect!! Seems to me that that is the respectful way to get to know someone, and it shows you're interested in them. It gives them the time to speak and talk about themselves. I also get very nervous and I don't like to talk about myself until directly asked. But, if someone starts asking me questions about myself, then I feel comfortable and am able to share. It then actually becomes a conversation.

I tend to ask questions of people too, hoping that when they're done, they'll ask me questions and then I'll be able to talk comfortably, knowing that the person really wants to hear. But 90% of the time, I just end up listening to someone talk about themselves and I never get asked any questions!!!

April 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill

I use.... Say What?

April 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentershuga

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