Say What? Say Again

“Extension fofozeone.”

Say what? I punched the code for “Play this message again all the way from the beginning, dagnab it, even though all I want to hear again is the last second of it.”

“Extension fofozeone.”

This time my brain actually separated the blur of speech into its constituent parts: four ““ four ““ zero ““ one. Knowing it was coming made all the difference.

I sure wasn’t surprised the Big Guy had missed it completely in transcribing the message for me. Our ears don’t hear as fast as they used to.

It’s hardest getting set pieces: the things a caller says all the time, doesn’t have to think about, and unconsciously speeds up on. Nothing critical to the communication, of course. Just their name, the company or agency they work for, and their telephone number and extension.

About 15 years ago, recognizing even then that I was having trouble trapping phone numbers on voice mail messages, I started changing how I left my number, consciously slowing my default pace of delivery.

I’d say my name, take a breath, and say the number in three distinct chunks: two-eight-nine, pause, five-seven, pause, six-two. Then came my master stroke: “I say again,” followed by the number. Again. It was a “Zen meets military radio operator” protocol.

That little phrase — I say again — gets the attention of a listener fussing because they missed the number and will have to listen to the whole dagnabbed message again. It’s shorthand for, “It’s OK. I’m gonna say it again. Get ready: Here it comes!”

But it all depends on the Zen delivery: speaking slowly enough that an attentive listener has at least a shot.

Speedy speech doesn’t make just voice-mail messages difficult for those of us with slowing ears: It can result in baffling face-to-face interactions, too.

On a spring trip to Southern California, I went to the San Diego Zoo. The path from the parking lot to the front gate ran up a switchback ramp. A short, wiry black man had positioned himself right where people were slowing down to make the sharp turn. Wearing a stocking cap, jeans, and a jacket, he didn’t look threatening; lacking any identifying badge or insignia, neither did he look official.

He talked to people as they streamed past him. Well, he said something, and people answered or nodded, going with whatever the flow was. He didn’t seem to be selling anything, so when he made eye contact with me and spoke, I paused.


The rising inflection told me it was a question, but that’s all I got.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”


I shrugged, smiled, apologized again. “Sorry, not gettin’ it.”

He looked at me for a second and then articulated the words slowly, “Are. You. Registered. To. Vote?”

Ah. “Yes, but not in this jurisdiction.”

I went on my way, all the more worldly for this exposure to how another political system builds its participation rate and confuses slow-eared foreigners. He went back to his civic duties, all the more effective for this interaction with an aging come-from-away. I could hear him speaking to the next wave of people, behind me.


As a naturally quick speaker who can become unintelligible when agitated, maybe I’m not well positioned to complain when others leave me in their verbal dust.

To that, I simply respond, “DoasIsaynotasIdo.”

“Say what?” you ask. Sorry, shall I say again?


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14 Responses to Say What? Say Again

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Been the same place. Check answering machine. Long message, at the end of which is a phone number for me to call back. All I get are the first two digits. Have to listen to the entire message twice to get the phone number.

    I’m tempted to phone and give them a rapid fire answer!

    Sry,2bztlkjstnow. Plzcllmebcknunhr.

    From the opposite direction, it reminds me of the man who wrote a letter to his grandmother and began by saying, “Granny, I’m writing this slowly because I know you have difficulty reading fast.”

    Cheers, Isabel


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes, speed is the curse of the age. As for the written as opposed to spoken word, my speediness manifests itself in not reading carefully enough. I’ve learned to use lots of headings and visual breaks, even in emails, to facilitate communication.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Our grandson has a learning disability (a child psych says it’s the most severe she has seen); at ten he still can’t read. So he has never seen that there is a space between words, and of course in speech there often isn’t a space between words. I recall having to drill him in learning his street address, in case he ever got lost: three…one…four…zero….Crosby…Road. Not “thrunffzeerkrosbro”
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Imagine trying to separate our stream of speech into words. I guess all children have that challenge. Reading would seem simple after that – translating our language knowledge into visual, from aural. And yet almost all kids learn to speak, and many have trouble with reading.

  3. Sid says:

    Hello Isabel

    This is Sid.

    Roger out!

  4. I read an interesting piece on Medium by a woman who was diagnosed with significant deafness when she was about 20. The hearing aid (she could not afford corrective devices for both ears, which she needed) was uncomfortable and she gave up wearing it after a few weeks’ trial. She recounts funny and sad incidents, especially touching as her hearing was deteriorating. After a few years, she made another attempt to get and wear another hearing aid, with a similar outcome. Still later, she read a book that informed her it may take up to two years for the brain to adjust to the altered sound input rendered by a hearing aid. She realized only then that she should have persevered when young. She did not recognize, as I did, that the types of thinking and behaviour she demonstrated in her social encounters went beyond verbal miscommunication to generalized sound deprivation to her brain — both hemispheres.
    As we age, we approach the same thin line between amusing misunderstandings and life-altering misapprehensions of what is evident to people with superior hearing. The idea of a two-year adjustment period may seem intimidating, but very possibly worthwhile.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Two years! That’s amazing: pretty stiff plasticity, it seems to me. 🙂 But many of our interventions take longer than I would like to bear fruit. And some don’t actually show any progress, but not doing it leads to deterioration (think flossing). A good reminder to be patient.

  5. Barry Jewell says:

    I have just succumbed to the pushing of wife and daughter.

    Do you think a hearing aid will cause the transmitter to eliminate bursts of speech or advise a change of subject?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barry – Regrettably, I do not so think. Having tried hearing aids for about 2 years on the pushing of an audiologist – and having stopped using them about 2 years ago because I could discern no difference – I am, perhaps, not the best source on this topic.

  6. Jim Taylor says:

    I don’t have any trouble hearing. Other people have trouble speaking. Not loudly enough. Or talking to the refrigerator. Or the dog. Or walking away from me while speaking. Or mumbling. Or covering their mouths with their hands. Or their moustaches. Or….
    I wish they’d learn to talk properly.
    Jim T

  7. Isabel Gibson says:

    No, no . . . never referring to anyone I know.

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