Alternatives to repeating "What?" if you can't hear someone





I’ve been in this situation a lot, and it becomes very awkward very quickly:

Person: “Kljiuojhuihph.”

Me: “What?”

Person: “I said, laskgoperhtoiuhuhgb.”

Me: “I… what?”

Person: “Adkjgpohett!!”

Me: “…What?

Person: “Oh, never mind.”

This is a waste of breath for everyone. It’s also quite frustrating if you genuinely care what the other person is saying, because you know there is something there and you can’t tell what it is. Finally, it annoys the other person in the conversation.

Basically, the goal in this situation is to get the other person to tell you what they are saying, in a way you can understand, without annoying them.

My suggestions for this situation are:

  1. Instead of repeating “What?” try using different phrases. “Say again?” “I’m sorry?” etc. This is especially good because some people think “What?” is rude, for some reason.
  2. If you think you know what they said, but aren’t sure, it can be good to ask them “Did you just say ______?”
  3. After 2-3 times that you haven’t been able to hear the answer, suggest an alternative. “Can we talk about this outside?” or “Can you write it down?” (or sometimes “Can you spell it?”) or “Can we talk about this later?” followed by an explanation (“It’s too loud in here” “I’m deaf in that ear” etc, or simply “I can’t hear you”) work for me.

I hope this helps.

This is, like, fine—all three of these are really useful strategies. (Thank you!)

But ftr it’s also s u p e r rude to say “nevermind” or express annoyance when someone asks you to repeat yourself because you’re talking in a way that makes it impossible for them to hear you. Communication is a two-way street.


Please keep in mind that for people who have speech impediments or trouble regulating the volume of their voices, or just voices that sound unusual in some way, it’s pretty common to be made fun of or mocked. Often this does take the form of saying “What? What?” repeatedly. It can be hard to tell sometimes whether that’s happening or if the person you’re trying to talk to genuinely can’t hear you. If someone seems dismissive, it’s possible that they don’t know whether you’re trying to make fun of them and are feeling defensive, especially if you don’t know each other well.

It can help to avoid misunderstandings like this (and is just generally more useful) if you can be specific about what the problem is. Instead of just asking them to repeat themselves, saying something along the lines of “I didn’t quite catch that, could you say it a little louder?” or “Sorry, it sounded like you mumbled a little there, could you say that more clearly?” can make it clear that you’re being sincere, as well as making it easier for them to fix the problem. 

That’s a good point.