My Irish colleague told me that when talking to a customer over the phone asking:"come again?" is considered rude and even offensive since it is very informal and almost demanding.

Now I did not really believe him, since I think there is more to words than just the words themselves, like the context and the tone of voice. Was it not 90% how you say it and 10% what you say?

Anyway. In Ireland I witnessed several ways to ask a person to repeat themselves.

Starting with "aha?" Or the "he?" Used by the Irish-man I talked to myself quite often. Next I'd put "what?"

Compared to these I'd classify "come again" not as impolite and rude especially when I say it in a polite almost deferential tone of voice.

For comparison. In Germany we have the "Was?" = "what" and the "Wie bitte?" = "How please?" the latter being the official polite way of asking to repeat. Which is quite short and since I find it awkward to say: "Can you repeat that please?" several times in a phone conversation over a bad line, I find "come again" quite similar to "Wie bitte?", just lacking the please, and appropriate.

What do you guys say about this?

PS: Compared to How do you decide which phrase to use when asking people to repeat what they said? I'm not asking about a ranking.

I'm more asking if "Come again?" is more like "Fuck you" or more like "You are brilliant". The difference being, that one of them you probably have a hard time of making sound polite or appreciating. Though it can be done, but I guess not to a complete stranger.

  • @ DisplayName. Every culture has certain social rules. Telephone etiquette is more formal. There are certain phrases used to sound polite, friendly and professional. For example, we say Could you please repeat that? if we didn't hear or understand what someone has said. In your case, it would have been nicer if you had said "Pardon/Excuse me, could you please repeat that?" Wie bitte? means Pardon? or Excuse me? in English. By the way, Was? sounds impolite to my ears when I hear that here in Germany on the phone or if my students say that to me.
    – Babs
    Jan 25, 2014 at 12:05
  • So long as there are more polite and popular alternatives, come again will risk being construed as impolite, yes. Wie bitte? not only has the 'please' in it, it's more the usual expression used in the context. Even "Huh, (name)?" should be polite enough I feel.
    – Kris
    Jan 25, 2014 at 14:49
  • Thanks for the comments so far. Nobody seemed to have picked up on the tone of voice. My Irish colleague for example tried to convince me by, mistakenly, saying "Wie bitte?" with a rough attitude akin to the rough attitude he used to show me how come again can be, or in his opinion is to be used to display hostility. – And he succeeded in showing that even saying polite words you can come across as rude. Even though that did not convince him that "Come again?" is not rude per se. Jan 25, 2014 at 16:14
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    The usage is very informal (similar to You what? with heavy stress on the second word), which almost by definition means it might come across as "rude / insulting" if you presume to use it when addressing someone you don't know in a relatively formal context (with no visual cues to help manage the interaction appropriately, as in a voice-only telephone call). Nov 5, 2022 at 14:23

1 Answer 1


Irrespective of whether most people in a certain region find it polite or not, if you are dealing with a customer and one you've probably not interacted with before, your best bet - more so from a business perspective, is to use safer alternatives, such as beg your pardon?.

Some might say I'm not answering the question and going tangential, but I think perception of rudeness can be subjective and therefore not just within in the realm of grammatical correctness.

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    I think you are answering the question. "Come again?" isn't rude per se, but that's because perceptions of rudeness vary by culture and context. Jan 25, 2014 at 12:39
  • Thanks George. I got downvoted in another instance where I couldn't be sure it was because my answer might have been slightly off tangentially, so I was tempted to add a caveat here.
    – Å Stuart
    Jan 25, 2014 at 15:49
  • Well "Beg your pardon?", sounds quite short to me. However it also sounds very antiquated and almost too formal to me. Remember the British on the phone don't mind me calling them by their first name, while in Germany that usually is not the case. So I'm a bit confused as to how you can call a stranger by their first name and then in the next sentence, or even the same say: "Beg your pardon?" Jan 25, 2014 at 16:17
  • I don't think everyone would see it as very formal. Other alternatives for you would be "sorry?", "could you repeat that?", or simply "pardon?".
    – Å Stuart
    Jan 25, 2014 at 16:22
  • @AshStuart thanks. But pardon could, at least I think, be interpreted as me being offended what he says, I guess the same goes for come again, as my colleague wanted to point out. But at least, I think, the come again includes the request to repeat, vs the pardon being kind of passive. Or is it obvious that when I say pardon, I want the other person to repeat themselves? Jan 26, 2014 at 8:11

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