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Recently, I overheard a conversation in which one person asked a question to another person, and the person who was asked the question said: "I'm afraid I am not understanding the question." Based on the body language of the person who said this, I can tell that she wasn't afraid/scared. So, this is my question: What does "to be afraid" mean in this specific context? I can conclude, based on my observation, that the meaning is not the literal meaning of "afraid" in this specific situation.

Please enlighten me.

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Well, it seems you are not familiar with this usage, so I'm afraidI'll have to explain it to you. Emotion: smile

Dictionaries usually explain this usage in the following way:

afraid: used often to soften an unpleasant statement ("I'm afraid I won't be able to come")

But the "unpleasant statement" doesn't really have to be very unpleasant. It may just be a bit awkward or inconvenient. In some cases, "I'm afraid" is a sort of apology, as if to say "I'm sorry, but". In any case, the sense of fear is extremely mild or absent, and the expression is fixed at "I'm afraid". In other words, we don't have "You're afraid", "They're afraid", and so on. It's always "I" when it is used this way.


Suppose you have a complaint you want to bring to the attention of the manager of a shop. You ask one of the salesmen to see the manager:

— I'd like to talk to the manager.
— I'm afraid she's not in at the moment, so you'll have to come back later.
(I'm sorry, but she's not in ...)

OR
— I'd like to talk to the manager.
— I'm afraid you'll have to come back later because she's not in at the moment.
(I'm sorry, but you'll have to ...)

CJ

Comments  
apatzinguenseI am not understanding

Did an Indian person say that? Native speakers would more likely say I don't understand.

Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
 CalifJim's reply was promoted to an answer.

Thank you so much!

No. She was American.

Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.
apatzinguenseNo. She was American.

There are many Americans whose first and perhaps only language is Hindi.