[Case Study] English Miscommunication at the Supermarket

[Case Study] English Miscommunication at the Supermarket

One of my clients asked me to review something that happened to him over the weekend. I think this situation serves as a good case study and follow up to my last blog post: Unexpected Word Flow.


Reminder to non-native English speakers: when you encounter a situation of miscommunication or misunderstanding, it’s not always because of your English. In fact, sometimes it’s more of just a clarification than a real misunderstanding.

Take my client “Ben” for example. Over the weekend, he was at the supermarket. He needed help finding something and asked a person,

“Do you work here?”

Ben wanted me to teach a better way to ask that because the person showed some hesitation.

Well, are there other expressions we could use? Sure. The English language is always going to give you more options (probably too many). But is there a real need for a change? In this case, no.

Before we break down the phrasing, let’s go over the context:

  • at the supermarket
  • need help
  • approaching an employee

It could’ve turned out this person didn’t even work there, which would explain his/her reluctance. But if it really was an employee, why would they show hesitation?

After all, Ben was just needing help. And it’s true, customers will ask an employee for help. But do you know the other most common situation customers approach employees? To complain.

So if we put ourselves in the employees’ shoes:

  1. I see a customer approaching me.
  2. I had to deal with 5 complaints earlier in the day.
  3. I’m scared this is going to be another complain.

I have a strong hunch it was probably along those lines, but that’s just one possibility among many. Maybe Ben just walked up to a lazy worker. Or maybe that employee had just wrapped up their shift.

Again, the reminder here: it ain’t always about your English.

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