Dear Captain Awkward,
I’ve had a problem for a while that has always been an issue with me, but is now beginning to affect my work and professional standing: I have a hard time understanding people strong foreign accents, and I don’t know how to address the issue without making it super awkward.
So here I am!
About me: I’m a 26-year-old software developer, US citizen living in the US, male and white. I feel blessed that I get to speak my native language at work and out in the city, but having lived in a foreign country, learning the language as I went, I understand how frustrating not being a native speaker can be (and not really, since I was an exchange student, and most people would assume at worst that I was a dumb tourist rather than “xenophobic enemy of the moment”).
But I can’t help that I have trouble understanding thick foreign accents speaking English, and recently, it’s been a problem for me at work.
My boss is Indian. She’s very intelligent and knowledgeable, but sometimes I have a hard time understanding her English due to her thick accent and sometimes quirky sentence structure. The reason this is becoming an issue is that I sometimes don’t understand my work assignments. Asking over and over for clarification clearly frustrates her, and makes me look stupid. “I don’t understand what the problem is, this isn’t hard to understand!”. Only it is!
Obviously, I don’t want to just make a best guess at what she wants me to do, and asking for my assignments in writing seems rude and obstructionist (plus, her written English is almost as difficult to understand). So I’m in a really awkward place where I look like I have to be handheld through each task assignment, and it’s making me look bad.
I don’t have a problem with this with my friends who have strong accents, since they don’t mind my asking to repeat or asking clarifying questions like my boss does. But they aren’t usually giving me important work-related information or medical history (I used to work reception at a medical office in a mall, and I had so many awkward incidents where someone would get offended that I wasn’t comfortable writing down what I THOUGHT they said about their medical history, so this isn’t a once-ever thing).
I’m hoping you have a script for me (hopefully universal, but American workplace-specific would also do) that I can use for when I need to say “It’s nothing personal, but I need you to slow down and use simple words because even though it sounds fine to you, your English skills do not match your native language skills”.
Dear Maybe Racist:
Readers from the subcontinent, please correct me if I’m wrong here, but English likely IS (one of) her native languages. She just speaks it differently than you do, because as it has become the dominant language worldwide, it has changed. So right off the bat, please avoid any implication that it is a foreign language for her or not her native language or that she’s doing it wrong – it won’t sit well and you’ll sound like Prince Charles (who thinks the only proper English is the Queen’s English, and that we Americans are corrupting it dreadfully. To which I say: Maybe his family should have let the fucking sun set once in a while.)
What I’m saying is that, technically, you also speak English with a funny accent when you talk to her.
I think there are a few things you can do to make your work relationship better. This is a good strategy for anyone who has communication problems with a boss.
1. Relax. When you speak with your boss, try to relax and listen as much as possible. Tension, resentment, and worry that you’re not understanding is only going to interfere with listening and understanding.
2. Write it down. Bring a notebook with you and write down what she tells you about assignments. Use the writing to give yourself a little time to process. Any script you use for asking her to slow down will come in here, and it might go like this: “I’m sorry, I sometimes have trouble with listening comprehension – can you say that again more slowly so I can write it down?”
4. Document and ask *substantive* questions. After you’ve tried to follow directions and figure out the assignment for a good hour or so, send her an email, along the lines of, “I’ve gotten started on x. Just to review, I’m going to handle p, q, and r and then (whatever it is you do). Now that I’m digging into it…” Ask any questions you have, but make them as much about the substance of the work as possible (vs. the parameters of the assignment), and do whatever you can to phrase them as an either/or choice.
I don’t know the language of what you do, so I’ll put it in terms of what I do. It’s the difference between a student asking “What do I have to do for the assignment again?” (Answer: Follow the very detailed directions in the assignment description on the class website! This is a very annoying question!) vs. “I am working on the documentary proposal, and in the “Research” section you ask for background information on the topic. How detailed would you like that to be? Do you want me to attach some relevant articles or just summarize?”
The second question is less annoying, and it shows me that the student has the gist of what’s going on, and it’s written in a way that lets me say “Just summarize, please, but make sure you include citations for your sources.”
This practice of documenting the assignment as given and asking substantive questions changes the conversation in several ways:
- It covers your ass. If down the road, HR gets involved, you can show you are honestly grappling with the work.
- It gives you more agency in doing your work. Take it upon yourself to imagine what you think she wants. What does the project need? What would work best? How would you do the project if you were the boss? Okay, cool, now run it by her and make sure you are on the right track (aka – Cover your ass).
- If you need to go back to her and ask her to repeat things, you are doing it from one level up, ie, you’ve actually attempted to follow directions and run into a snafu, so you’re hopefully asking better questions about what she means.
4. Get better at understanding accents, especially HER accent. Seek out movies, podcasts, radio, music, TV, and listen. Accustom your ear to the cadences. That’s what telephone operators in India do so that they can help us fix our computer problems and deal with credit card billing issues. Did they do it because it was fun? No – it was their economic reality and what the marketplace demanded. This is your economic reality right now. There is a huge amount of work being done collaboratively between teams in India and America, so the work you put in will not be wasted down the road.