I can’t hear you, sorry…or am I?

Caption: Graphic courtesy of Karen Mogami ’24.

After years of using Zoom, I finally realized something. That “something” was about a sentence I regularly repeated, yet I never got around to comprehending the poor logic within its construction. I met with a colleague over Zoom recently. When she tried speaking to me and I couldn’t hear anything, I quickly noticed that same gray microphone with a red slash that confirmed the reason for her virtual silence. And so, unsurprisingly, I said, “Sorry, I can’t hear you. I think you’re on mute.” 

“Sorry, can you speak up?”

“Sorry, you might be on mute.”

“Speak up? Sorry.”

“Excuse me, sorry, I can’t hear you.” 

“Pardon, what was that?”

At last, it dawned on me. Why do we apologize when we can’t hear somebody? Unless we’re focusing on something else and need the other person to repeat themselves for that reason, why do we apologize for something that isn’t our fault? It is the other person’s responsibility to speak up and unmute. They could also be soft-spoken without our knowledge. 

I believe that as a society, we can improve the situation for both sides of the exchange: the speaker and the listener. The speaker may not always talk at a volume loud enough for a variety of reasons, whether it be exhaustion, soft-spokenness or fatigue. We should reassure them that it’s not a nuisance or an inconvenience worth feeling bad about and that it is a common human occurrence. At the same time, however, listeners should avoid apologetic language if they are truly unable to hear what the speaker is saying. After all, suggesting a repetition of the same statement if it’s said too quietly or under virtual silence would actually help them get their message across. It is not an inconvenience to be sorry about. 

So how can we avoid apologetic speech? Suppose you are on a video call where you can only hear muffled noise or indiscernible speech from the person you are talking to. Try saying, “Could you speak up?” Or “Do you mind speaking a bit louder?” Or “I can’t hear you.” Or “I didn’t catch that; can you talk a bit louder?” An apology does not exist anywhere in these responses; rather, they are clear and frank ways of communicating the desire to have the other person speak up without meaning any disrespect or poor judgment.

Frequently apologizing in this context as well as during similar instances means suffering the consequences of over apologizing, which means claiming fault for minor disruptions in communication that are often nobody’s actual fault. If we continually apologize for not being able to hear someone despite actively listening, then what is stopping us from apologizing when sneezing, requesting that somebody blocking the way move over or correcting someone’s spelling error when reviewing their paper? 

Saying “sorry,” “excuse me” or “pardon” can often numb future apologies that would be valid and place the apologizer in a weaker communicative position among both peers and professionals. Moreover, frequent apologies in situations where doing so isn’t socially necessary or logical, even within the realm of courtesy, can give the other person the impression that the apologizer fears retribution or judgment, according to NBC. While being self-aware and courteous is important, one must also be self-confident. 

To be clear, I am not trying to eviscerate apologies from the nonstop currents of our shared linguistic consciousness. But to put logic at the forefront, the act of an apology may need some specific and contextual revision. Apologizing when asking somebody to repeat themselves even while actively listening feels ingrained in our vernacular, but it can be changed. A “sorry” can actually be replaced with a “thank you,” including when informing somebody that they were not heard due to being too quiet. 

“Could you say that again? Thank you.”

“Thank you, but do you mind speaking up a bit? I didn’t catch some of what you said.”

A “thank you” may not always feel right, though. If we totally miss out on what somebody said if, for example, they were on virtual “mute,” why not just use the same polite language that is recycled in basic interactions? It includes “could you” or “may you” or “do you mind.” These avoid diminishing the logical and socially equivalent position of the listener while also preventing the speaker from feeling bad about what may be wrongfully perceived as a social error of neglecting to click “unmute.”

Y’all hear me? 

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