When people ask me what is difficult about using Japanese, I usually tell them that talking on the phone is hard. This is for good reason–when you’re talking face to face, there are non-verbal cues to help you along in communication. However, you can only hope for a good connection on the phone so you can hear every syllable, including the crucial verb conjugation at the end of the sentence which will dictate the entire meaning of the sentence! What’s more, if it’s someone you don’t know, they’ll likely be using hefty of amounts of keigo–very formal Japanese–which even young native speakers have trouble using before they enter the work force.
It’s one thing when the person on the other line is someone I know, but customer service lines can prove especially challenging. Besides using keigo, they are usually talking about subject matter I rarely use in my daily life, and since this is what they work with every day, they tend to speak very, very fast, and many phrases tend to run together into single words. This is not just a Japan thing–based on personal experience on both ends of the phone, I’m willing to bet this is a world-wide trend for any kind of call center. I can’t fault the other party too much–if I had just been able to distinguish a few key pieces of information dropped throughout the course of the call, I could have saved us both a lot of time and confusion. Some things you only learn through experience.
On the other hand, I usually don’t have any difficulties with every day exchanges and errand running, so I sometimes forget that I look like I may not understand everything going on around me. I was thoroughly confused when someone made a chopstick gesture in the air at a grocery store, and I wondered why in the world she would be bringing up something about scissors.
That said, I really appreciated the person on the other line when I called my gas company. He asked if Japanese was okay, I said yes, and then he used normal Japanese–speaking in a clear voice at a normal pace. Sometimes that’s all non-native speakers of any language could ask for!