It’s like you’re trying to speak to me

I have an uncanny ability of NOT being able to understand people with accents. This particular ability wasn’t as noticeable when I was living and traveling within a three-hour radius of Northwest Ohio. I can speak Putnam County well. However, living just 25 minutes from the most diverse city in the world, this ability is proving to be problematic. And, more of a disability.

Have a European accent? Sorry, I can’t understand you. Have a South African accent? I’m sorry? Have a Middle Eastern accent? Pardon? Seriously, it’s ridiculous. Husband noticed it first when a woman with an Eastern European accent took my order at a restaurant several months ago. How many times can a girl ask, “Excuse me?” before it becomes too redundant or too frustrating? I thought maybe I’d get better as time passed and I encountered more and more English-as-a-second-language (ESL) speakers, but this has not been the case.

I’m beginning to wonder if my hearing is disappearing, too.

Take today for instance. I got my hair cut by a young Turkish-Iraqi woman. She was lovely. She and her family moved to Canada from Iraq two years ago. Almost everyone in her family is a stylist. Two of her brothers work in the states. She has a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old. The 11-year-old is good at cutting hair, too. Those are the key points I picked up. Her accent? Thick. Maybe even as thick as the day she arrived here. Which could be why I’m now sporting a boy cut. Hhmmm.

Anyway, I noticed she understood me for the most part, but I was at a loss for much of the conversation unless I asked her to repeat herself two and, unfortunately, sometimes three times. Thankfully, she was very patient. Good thing, too, because she was holding the scissors.

I got to thinking about ESL speakers trying to understand native English speakers. That can’t be a walk in the park particularly early on in the learning process. My interactions with foreign-accented individuals also have me thinking more about my own speaking and how I talk too fast and, from time to time, mumble. I’m not sure where I picked up the latter, but neither attributes are fantastic when talking with heavily accented individuals.

So, I’m working on it. Working on slowing down and working on asking those I cannot understand to repeat themselves. Two and three times if need be. Nancy Friedman, president of Telephone Doctor, an international customer service training company, based in St. Louis, Missouri, has some helpful advice for those of us who are new to interacting with foreign accents.

  • Don’t pretend to understand. It’s OK to admit you’re having difficulty understanding someone and to ask him/her to repeat themselves more slowly.
  • Don’t rush.
  • Don’t shout. Turns out people with accents aren’t necessarily hard of hearing.
  • Don’t be rude.
  • Always smile. Smiles are understood no matter the accent.

You can read her entire article here. These are all good things to remember. And, no worries, I can understand Husband’s miniscule Canadian accent just fine. I’ll continue practicing with all the other accents I encounter.


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