Total Telephone Call Fail

23 January 2014; AT5 = 1063 hours; total class time = 2001 hours; TV = 485.7 hours

Even in my native English, I’m not a phone person – but I absolutely dread phone calls in Thai, despite the fact that I’ve been managing them fairly well for over a year now. I guess it’s the lack of body language and facial expression, plus the lower (sometimes considerably so) sound quality – it just makes it a lot harder for me to understand the other person.

Somehow saying I don’t understand seems a lot worse in a phone conversation than during face-to-face dealings. Maybe it’s because a phone conversation I don’t understand is sure to be followed by either another rush of hard-to-decipher verbiage or an awkward silence or both, with no possibility of reading the other person non-verbally.

To make matters worse, J, the man I need to call – this in regards to an upcoming trip – is someone I met a couple years ago, along with a large number of other Thai people, almost none of whose names managed to stick in my head.

Thai names are a problem for me. A Thai name that I’m unfamiliar with is just like any new, unfamiliar word – I’m usually not going to remember it until I’ve heard it a whole bunch of times. I’ve since taken to making notes on people I meet, along with English transliterations of their names – how unALGesque, but how necessary!

I’ve tentatively summoned up a (hazy) face in my memory, but I’m not really sure it’s the right one. Despite our having met, I’m not sure who J is, which makes me more nervous about phoning him .

Finally I make the call. Hesitantly I introduce myself, and he remembers me right away. (Did K, the mutual friend who I got J’s number from, tell him I’d be calling? Or am I highly memorable simply by virtue of being a farang in a rural area that gets few if any farangs?) I explain that I’m returning for a visit, and I’d like to stay at the rural temple I’d stayed at last time, if it’s OK with the abbot.

This last part is because, although in Thailand it seems like you can sometimes show up at a temple unannounced and end up staying, I still figure it’s better to play it safe. I have no way of phoning the abbot directly, but J does – should this actually be an issue.

But what I’m hearing coming out of the phone is a rush of blurry not-all-so-clear Thai with (fortunately!) some key words standing out here and there. I think J’s offering to pick me up at the bus station, which is no small thing given that (from what I remember) it’s close to an hour’s drive to the temple; but I don’t want to impose on him or even worse – if I’ve totally misunderstood – end up finagling a ride that was never offered.

So I tell him that I’ll just take a songthaew, if that’s possible; but he offers again to give me a ride – or so I think. So we leave off that I’ll call him when I arrive at the station.

Phone call completed, successfully!

And yet, like a lot of classes I’ve attended at AUA or a lot of the lakorn episodes that I watch, I feel like although I got the overall idea of what was being said, I missed most of the words – which is OK, but it leaves me feeling as though I’m viewing things through an obliterating fog that wipes out most of the details.

I feel uncertain: could I have misunderstood, did I miss anything important? I guess I’ll find out in a few days….


I get a phone call from K (Since K speaks both Thai and English fluently, we use English). J had phoned him confused – J didn’t really understand the upshot of our conversation or what the plan was. I explain to K that I thought J had offered to pick me up at the bus station, in any event I’ll call when I arrive.

K asks me if I want a lift from J on his motorcycle. But in addition to not wanting to impose on J, I really don’t like the idea of a long motorcycle ride with my bulky backpack. It’s OK, I tell K, I’ll just take a songthaew. I’ll call if I run into a problem.

After I get off the phone I realize K never told me what J came away from our phone call with. I have no idea if J basically understood me but called K for confirmation – or couldn’t understand what I said at all.

What I do know is that he felt uncertain enough to ask K to double-check the plan – in English.

I’d now have to rate this episode as total fail, and it makes me wonder if maybe my Thai is understood less than I think.

If I ask for something and receive it, or ask a question and am given information that is later confirmed as true, then I know that what I’ve said was understood. If I’m speaking with someone and the conversation keeps going, and their responses are based off things I’ve said, then I know that I was understood.

I also have a pretty good idea of when the other person doesn’t understand what I’m saying – I see confusion in their face, or they don’t respond to the question or issue that I’ve raised, or the conversation takes on a very non-sequiturish quality.

But what about all the things I say for which there’s no confirmation either way? All the things I say that, maybe I was understood or maybe not – there’s no way of knowing.

Total fail for this particular episode – and which others that I’m not even aware of?….

UPDATE (3 March 2014): post-postscript: There’s a further upshot to this story. I found out (after the fact) that J actually did go to the bus station to pick me up – but to no avail, since I had followed through with my plan to take a songthaew. So: a further communication-SNAFU despite our having used a bilingual go-between to translate.

Maybe something other than my less-than-perfect Thai was the problem? I suppose I’ll never know what really went wrong in this situation: conducting a thorough post-mortem seems hardly worth the trouble, and this particular episode is over and done with. Some things just aren’t worth thinking about too much.

So, onto the next mishap….


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