Hurdling Heavy Accents – by Terry Howard

Perhaps it’s attributable in part to shifting demographics, which has attracted people from across the globe, but there’s no denying the growth in cultures that have permeated Douglas and surrounding Georgia counties, their schools, businesses and neighborhoods. And that growth has been accompanied by an increase in the number of accents and the challenges that come with communicating through accent differences.

No matter how hard I work at it, I often struggle attempting to communicate with someone with a “heavy” accent. Am I alone? A situation a few years ago, one that left me feeling woefully incompetent, made this poignantly clear. Here’s what happened. Tell me if it resonates.

To my left sat two Chinese people. A Korean sat on my right. Across the table sat a Pakistani (okay, I think) and to his left, a Japanese and a New York born New Yorker. Our table was one of many in a room of more than 400 people, each having multiple conversations going through a bouquet of diverse accents. I struggled at my table and suspected that I was not the only one at other tables.

Now I did all the so-called right things – sat upright, gave each speaker my undivided attention and listened intently. Yet I struggled. All I could do was smile (clueless as to what the heck I was smiling about), nod my head for some unexplainable reason and steal a look at the roast chicken and green beans on my plate. And when it was over, I breathed a sigh of relief at the temporariness of the situation and, fearing more embarrassment, made a beeline to the parking lot.

The bet here is that this is a situation we’ve all run into at one time or another while shopping, making reservations, sitting in a college classroom or dialing up customer service for technical support. (C’mon folks, I see you nodding out there!).

Okay now let’s “cut and paste” this scenario into everyday life and living in your city/county of residence. Suddenly the stakes are higher.

At the heart of the problem is that many won’t dare ask for clarification if someone’s accent make it difficult to understand them. Nobody wants to be rude. For me, it’s bad enough having to utter those humbling words, “sorry, but I can’t understand you,” and worse still – duh! -to have to repeat these words when I still don’t understand. Thus, many of us will just nod and listen as best we can for word clues that may help piece together what we hope is being said. And when all else fails, we smile, keep nodding, slip into silence, end the conversation or, like the cowardly yours truly, dart to the nearest exit.

“I couldn’t understand a thing they said!”

Sound familiar? This is a common response to heavy accents. The problem is that sometimes we just tune out the minute we hear an accent – some accents, that is. However, all accents are not created equal. A British accent calls up images of an Oxford scholar or a Shakespearean actor. Not so with many other accents, however.

Often there’s an assumption that people speaking with certain accents are more or less competent or knowledgeable. A New England accent (smart!) or a Southern U.S. “drawl” (not smart) are classic examples that comes to mind.

To put things into perspective I ask you this: How perfectly do you speak Spanish, French or some other language? Now think about your own frustration when others can’t understand what you’re trying to get across. Well, people with heavy accents feel no different. So, it’s good to appreciate that the person with the accent (guess what – we all have an accent) wants to be understood just as much as we want to understand and be understood. A bit of empathy helps.

Now to be fair, a heavy accent because of culture is only one side of the issue. It’s disingenuous to stop there. Understanding folks who talk too fast, too quietly, have speech impediments, use lots of jargon, acronyms, etc., can be just as daunting.  So, it’s not solely an issue of culture-based heavy accents.

Let’s go now to a short list of practical tips for working through accent differences:

DON’T PRETEND TO UNDERSTAND:  It’s perfectly okay and respectful to gently say that you’re having difficulty understanding them. “I’m sorry, would you please slow down so that I can understand you?”

DON’T SHOUT:  Those with foreign accents are not hard of hearing, so shouting at them can be insulting.

DON’T BE RUDE:  Avoid “huh?” “what,” and other terse responses as well as rolling your eyes or throwing up your hands in frustration. 

NOTE: What’s been your experience (what to say/do, not to say/do) when dealing with accent challenges? And if you’ve experienced the frustration of trying to be understood because of your accent, what advice would you offer to folks who struggle with your accent?

Please comment your responses for a possible follow-up article. Thanks!

Terry Howard

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