Doing scary things in another language: the phone call edition

The other day, I received a flyer in my mailbox. This is not unusual as I get all kinds of ads in there all the time–usually for pizza places, the occasional “adult” venue, about condos I will never be able to afford in my life–that kind of thing. But this time I spotted the gas company logo at the top and figured it was important, so I had a second look.

First thing I noticed: the flyer mentioned a mandatory visit from the gas rep.

Second thing I noticed: the flyer listed a date and time I was not available.

In vain, I searched for an option to go online and reschedule. However, I eventually came to the realization that I would have to call and talk to a real, live person to change my appointment time, and it would all have to be in Japanese.

I don’t care if you’re fluent in your second, third, or fourteenth language- speaking in anything other than your native tongue while in person can be a little intimidating, but I find speaking on the phone much more challenging. There are so many cues you pick up from body language that simply isn’t available to you on the phone. And if you are at a loss for words, you can’t just gesture or draw a picture to help get your message across.

“But Stefanie, all you’re talking about is requesting an appointment change,” you say, shaking your head. “It can’t be that tough.”

Sure it can. Here’s the information I needed to know how to explain in Japanese:

-I didn’t have all the usual numbers they ask for when searching for you in their database so I had to provide my address instead;

-I needed to know what days and times worked for me ahead of time in case the first option wasn’t available;

-I also wanted to know the key words on the flyer just in case the customer service rep I got had no idea what I was on about. This way, I could clarify what sort of appointment it was, when I got it, and about previous appointments if necessary.

So, I wrote down the key words, my greeting, and a couple of available dates and times down in a notebook, and as the conversation went on I checked off the bits that we’d already discussed or agreed to, and crossed out things that weren’t possible. Five minutes after I called, we had a new day and time agreed upon and I was able to hang up knowing everything was completely taken care of.

People prepare for situations in many different ways, and some might not find it necessary to write all of that information down. They might be perfectly happy ringing up the rep, laughing off any potential awkwardness at not knowing a word, and calling back if necessary. Others might have or are able to get their hands on a native speaker to handle their phone calls for them, to which I say, fair enough! Take advantage of the resources you have. Others still might just avoid the whole situation and hope it goes away (a tactic I admittedly resort to on occasion).

Whatever you do, do it to ensure you’re the most comfortable and prepared for the situation you’re about to face. This is how I do it, and if you’re living or staying somewhere that you’re required to speak in a language that is not your native tongue, maybe this can help you.

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