what to say when words fail you part 3. getting a moment to think
Getting a moment to think
A lot of people, answering a question in their native language, will get about five words into the answer before they decide what the answer actually is. It’s called “putting the mouth in gear while the brain is still in neutral”. People who have been to university, as well as people speaking in a foreign language, usually tend to wait until they have thought of their answer before they start to speak. If the speaker is shy or feeling anxious, they will then take an extra second to double-check their words before voicing them. Shy, clever, educated people speaking in a foreign language may need several seconds of processing time before answering a question even as simple as: “Do people in your country like dogs?” A silent period before answering may make your conversational partner think that you are stupid, ignorant of the language, drunk, falling asleep or in some kind of hypnotic trance. It may be a good idea to make some noise while revving up your brain.
Here are some suggestions for making the right kinds of noise:
1) Pretend you didn’t hear the question.
“Did you say dogs or frogs?”
2) Repeat the question in a thoughtful voice:
“Do people in my country like dogs?”
3) Say “Mmm…..”
4) Say: “That’s a VERY interesting question! Let me think…..”
5) Say: “Well, I’m not ENTIRELY sure, but I would say…..”
6) Ask for clarification of the question.
“Do you mean that they like dogs in the sense of keeping them as pets?”
7) Turn the question back onto the questioner.
“Mmm….I’m not really sure…..how popular are they in YOUR country?”
8) Answer “No!” in a confident tone of voice.
The chances are that the questioner wasn’t expecting that (people tend to ask questions expecting the answer yes). They will then ask “WHY don’t people in your country like dogs?” Now you may have to…..
9) Invent an outrageous lie.
“Dogs were banned in my country about twenty years ago. We keep ferrets or very large hamsters as house pets instead.” This sounds so unlikely that you know the questioner will ask you more about it. This is useful for controlling a question-and-answer session in an examination.
10)Tell a personal or family story.
“My grandfather was a famous dog breeder. He once sold a cocker spaniel to Stalin’s aunt.” It doesn’t matter if it is only slightly relevant to the question, if the story is interesting you can get a couple of minutes of conversation out of it – again useful in examinations.
11) Admit your ignorance and move on.
“I have absolutely no idea I’m afraid. Have you another question you could ask me instead?”
This works best if the questioner doesn’t know you:
12) State an opinion.
“Dogs? I hate dogs! They carry fleas and people spend money on them that they could spend feeding the homeless!” You don’t really have to think this, just state something the other person is likely to disagree with and, again, you control the conversation for the next couple of minutes.
If absolutely desperate, you can always try:
13) The wildly unexpected conversation change.
“I don’t know much about dogs. Incidentally, did you know that my country is world famous for producing a kind of cheese made from mouse’s milk? Pavarotti wouldn’t perform anywhere without a crate of it in his dressing room.”
Next article: more examination tips.