Unexpected Word Flow

“What a terrible question! Look at how they worded this! What does it even mean?”

My girlfriend was taking an online survey and wanted backup in processing this question: “How often does your cat use the litter box?”

  1. 25% of the time
  2. 50% of the time
  3. 75% of the time
  4. 100% of the time

“Just what exactly is it trying to ask me?”

I told her that I think it’s trying to figure out how well-trained your cat is at using the litter box (i.e. s/he goes where s/he’s supposed to, or s/he makes a mess on the floor).

“Oh? Is it? Well, pft, what a poorly-worded question!”

And it kind of is, but it kind of isn’t… (well, okay, it totally is but I’m using this as a setup to make a point). Sometimes when there’s misunderstandings and miscommunication, it’s not actually because something is poorly-worded. If you go back to the original question, “How often does your cat use the litter box?”, there’s no grammatical errors.

Even if you had an accent, the question could be heard well enough. So why then all the confusion? That question plays against our expectations.

If you’re trying to figure out is your cat pees on the floor or not, how would you ask it?

  • Does your cat pee/ on the floor (a lot)?
  • Does your cat pee/poo outside the litter box?
  • Is your cat well-trained at using the litter box?

There’s plenty of other variations, but those would be the most “immediate” to mind. When you stray away from the typical kind of talk (i.e. the expected flow), the listener is going to be caught by surprise. As a result, they’ll second-guess if they heard it correctly.

So when they ask you to repeat, it’s just to stall so they can process “Did I really hear what I thought I heard?”

Here’s another example. When you meet someone, what’s one of the first things you might say?

  • Hey, how’s it going?
  • How are you?
  • Long time no see?

Again, there’s a whole list of other phrases. Depending on the closeness with the individual, you’re more likely to stray away from that sort of small talk.

Imagine if you said something like, “How’s your Mom?”– wouldn’t that be kind of weird? Maybe you’ve known your friend’s mother for a long time. Maybe you genuinely just want to know how she’s doing. But hearing that as the first thing coming out of your mouth, the listener will hesitate. The listener will probably ask you to repeat.

Not because there’s anything grammatically incorrect. Not because of the wording either. The confused reaction is caused by a non-typical flow of conversation.

So for my non-native speaker clients and readers:

Next time you’re having a conversation and someone asks you to repeat? Stop automatically assuming it’s because of your English. Stop immediately thinking you made a mistake. Cut that shit out.

It’s annoying. This sort of situation can happen to anybody.

It doesn’t do you any good to automatically assume you’re being deficient, and then take a blow to your self-esteem. In the next post, I’ll point out how native speakers can experience the same exact thing. In the meantime, you can check CollegeHumor‘s take:

Published by Jon Dao

Formerly, the Conversation Coach

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