For us expats, migrant workers, and Scatts this is a problem that never really goes away. Answering the phone in a foreign country is one of those critical social situations that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. I’m talking about phone calls when you don’t know who’s on the other end – landline phones or the dreaded ‘unknown number’ on your mobile.
Remember the days when you had to phone a building and hope?
I’ve long been a student of the way different nationalities answer the phone, by which I mean I’ve sometimes noticed they do it differently in other countries and though “Gosh, that’s interesting.” The Spanish say “Dígame!” meaning “Speak to me!” which always sounded appropriate in a voluble Latino kind of way, the Japanese say “Moshi moshi,” which apparently doesn’t mean anything at all and is therefore also appropriate in an oriental one-hand-clapping kind of way, and the Polish say “Słucham” meaning “I’m listening,” which is funny because it would be an extremely rude way of answering the phone in English. Back when I was convinced all Polish people were rude I thought it was hilarious.
Moshi moshi. I admit, I always thought they were saying “washing machine.”
Leaving aside the vagaries of national variations in phone-answering phrases the problem of how to answer the phone if you are a foreigner remains. If you’re fluent in Polish it isn’t a problem of course, but how many of us can claim to be so fluent that speaking on the phone, probably the most difficult of all language-skill tests, isn’t a problem? Certainly not me. There are three common responses to this problem:
1. The ‘Słucham’
You’ve learned a bit of Polish and you know you’re supposed to say ‘Słucham’ when you answer the phone. You answer the phone with “Słucham” and things go rapidly down hill from there. The person on the other end unconsciously hears what he is expecting and assumes you’re a native speaker of Polish. Usually he then attempts to sell you life insurance, but the guy is speaking so fast you have no idea what he’s saying and you can’t discount the possibility that he might be begging you to write the definitive history of Poland (or whatever your thing is). You say “Ermmm” and explain in bad Polish that you can’t understand. He tries to sell you life insurance all over again and the cycle repeats until somebody gets tired and hangs up.
The ‘Słucham’ is a high-risk strategy that rarely brings happiness. If you’re a young man about town likely to receive phone calls from half-remembered females it may be worth the risk for suaveness value. Otherwise, forget it.
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2. The ‘Hello’
You’ve been through the whole ‘Słucham’ debacle and have decided to switch back to your native language. “If I answer in English,” you reason “the person on the other end will think I don’t speak Polish and will abandon any attempt to sell me life insurance.” You even go so far as to make your ‘Hello’ as broad and colloquial as your native regional accent allows: “’ello,” “yellow,” or, in extreme cases, “yo.”
It doesn’t work. Unfortunately Poles have the word ‘halo’ which is used exclusively on the phone to mean something like “are you there?” and is close enough to ‘hello’ to make them think that’s what they heard. The conversation goes like this:
Insurance salesman (uncertain): Halo?… Dzien dobry?…
You: Dzien dobry (because you can’t help replying to a ‘Dzien dobry’ when you hear one)
Insurance salesman (now confident): Yada yada yada life insurance yada yada latest scheme from America yada yada yada…
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3. The surrealist approach
The problem is that 99 percent of the Polish population speaks Polish. The average Pole calling a number in Poland just isn’t expecting a non-Polish speaker to answer. Breaking down this expectation takes extreme measures, just saying “hello” doesn’t cut it.
I’ve tried the following with some success:
“Smocza jama. Mowi smok.”
“Harrogate 359, please hold for Mr. Herriot”
(sung) “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green…”