The Background

I work with a LOT of non-native English speakers. As such, miscommunications are a daily occurrence. I've noticed that sometimes when they don't understand something, they'll just nod and smile, or smile and say "yeah." Whether this happens because they deem the act of asking for clarification to not be worth it given the conversation or they're too embarrassed to admit they don't know, I'm not sure of.

The Problem

Since I'm on friendly terms with many of these people, I'll joke with them and our conversations will carry lighter tones. This usually results in me dropping my guard and not always remembering to enunciate and talk as slowly as I need to. My issue comes when I ask a work related question or a question that I need answered and they nod and smile.

In my experience, re-asking the question or making it clear that I asked a question results in embarrassment for the other party. I understand that I need to better enunciate and talk slower around these people, but realistically I can't always remember to.

The Question

Once I'm in a situation where I've asked a question and gotten a nod and smile, how can I get the answer I need while minimizing embarrassment for the nod-and-smiler?

Note: I've tagged this United States, but I'd be interested to hear if other cultures have their own ways of dealing with this!

  • Is this in the context of one-to-one conversation or in a group discussion setting? If it is a one-to-one conversation, it wouldn't be really awkward for the other party as you and the person are on friendly terms and can just use a friendly gesture and repeat the question afterwards... so what is the context and setting of this situation? Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 2:20
  • does the background culture of the non-native speaker play are role? I ask this because I have found that in some non-western cultures it is considered impolite to say no and saying that you do not understand is equivalent to saying no, which leads to embarrassment, which, in turn, is a big thing in those cultures.
    – GretchenV
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 9:34

5 Answers 5


That happens to me sometimes at my University. I usually pretend that the nod-and-smile is an adequate response to that question, and then rephrase the question (speaking slower, less technical language etc) as if this is a new question unrelated to what I'd said before. So I'll start with "Another thing is ____" even though really it's the same thing. It's not a real long-term solution to communication problems and saving face, but it seems to do the job.

  • 3
    I really like this answer because it's simple and easy. I guess I should've emphasized that while this happens enough for me to ask about it here, it doesn't happen all that often, so a quick fix like this is perfect. Thank you!
    – scohe001
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 15:30

I know this situation. In my experience it is best to say the same again with other words and maybe an example.

And follow up with a question or two which will confirm if they understood you. And if not then tell them the same again in different words with an introduction like: "Maybe what I said was unclear, what I meant was xyz". So you don't give them the feeling that they are stupid and don't understand, you give them the feeling that you should have known better and explained it to them in a better way.

In my experience this works. And if the others know that you will follow up with questions then they will think twice before they just say "yes", "sure", etc.

And they will also learn that they don't have to be embarrassed if they tell you they didn't understand you and please repeat it again slower.

Addition: I am used to this behavior with lots of Thai people. Almost all of them “learn” in school to be good kids and do not ask. The teacher teaches and he is always right. And if you don’t understand it then you must be stupid. This is how they grew up and for many of them it takes a long time to understand that with many “westerners” they can ask and they even should ask.

I like to add Cashbee's comment: "What I would have added though is kindly reassuring them that they can and should say so when they did not understand something (after the conversation, when it has happened again)."


Are you really sure problem is due to language/accent/speed and not because they don't understand the technicalities of what you said ? I'm asking this as someone whose first language is not English. If I don't understand someone's accent, I have absolutely no problem asking them to repeat. But if they are trying to explain something/ train me on stuff and it's going over my head, I may just nod my head to avoid looking like an idiot. I would most probably miss a question because I'd still be thinking about what was said before that.

If you are sure the problem is due to them not being able to keep up with your speed then obviously, it would help if you slow down while talking. If that's difficult for you to remember, try these after you get the nod/smile.

Since you are on friendly terms with them, you can say "Guys, I'm waiting for my answer .. I just want to know <"repeat your question at a slower pace">. You won't really be embarrassing anyone, you just come across as a bit impatient while waiting for your answer.

If you don't want to do that, tell them "Looks like you need more time to answer my question, should I summarize our discussion and my question in an email ? You can reply to it when you get time." Chances are most of them will say 'Yes'. That way, you can get your answer without offending anyone.


I believe cultural differences can play a big part in this issue. In some cultures it is not acceptable to say you don't understand, that someone may be making a mistake or simply to give no as an answer. I have heard a nice tip on dealing with Chinese people some time ago. Someone who worked there a lot said to never ask a question in a way that it should be answered with yes or no. I you want to know if someone can do a certain job in time, you cannot ask if he can do it, but instead you should ask how he intends to do it.

I would recommend reading some articles and books on the subject. I have read some articles about the 'culture map' by Erin Meyer, this seemed like a very complete and practical book on the subject.


You said that you are on good terms with these colleagues and can share a joke. I find that humour is not only a great ice-breaker when two people are divided by language, but it is also evidence that a person is progressing well with a second language. When a person can make someone else laugh in a language that is not native to them, or understand humour when receiving in a second language, then they have definitely reached a level that is beyond asking for the bill in a restaurant. You may be able to use humour appropriate for the workplace to (a) boost the confidence of your non-native English speaking colleagues which could help them relax and reduce embarrassment, and (b) create a relationship between you where they feel they can be more honest about what they have not fully understood.

Next time a miscommunication occurs, see if you can approach the person with a broad smile, and point out the error as if you find the mistake humorous. Your aim is to make them laugh with you, not laugh at their English. This may depend on the person, but if you are already sharing a joke with them you should hopefully be able to gauge if this will work.

Once you have established with someone that you can laugh about the situation, you should be free to give them an instruction and then ask them:

Are you sure you understand? I'm happy to explain anything?

I appreciate that this method depends on the other person's good humour but as you mention you have this rapport already I hope you can build on it.

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