When I describe to people what I do, they always tell me about someone at work, or someone they have to speak to on the phone, whose accent they can’t understand. (IT support departments in India is the most common one).
But of course, they’ve never said anything. They just muddle through, sometimes pretending they understand, usually asking that person to repeat her- or himself, always getting terribly embarrassed by the whole thing – and if they’re embarrassed, imagine how the person with the ‘strong’ accent is feeling!
“Sorry?” Understanding other accents
Read this blogpost for some good advice about how to cope with unfamiliar accents at work: point 1 is my favourite. If you yourself speak steadily and carefully, and make sure your own speech is crystal clear, it’s very likely that the person you’re talking to will start to do the same.
How can I put this…?
A ‘strong’ accent is a difficult subject to raise with people. It’s like telling someone they have bad breath. Even if you’re a manager or HR professional, used to giving direct and honest feedback, extra sensitivity is needed with this one.
It’s more complicated than other kinds of feedback, on areas like people skills or personal presentation. Most organisations have a culture, with particular rules and conventions, which applies to everyone; most people expect to adapt themselves to their work environment to an extent, whether it’s in the way they dress, or the vocabulary they use.
But a person’s speech is a different matter. It’s part of who they are and where they come from, so being told that that part of them isn’t acceptable, if it’s handled badly, can be taken as a major affront. It’s very hard not to take it personally: at worst, it can feel like discrimination.
Accent and office politics
I’ve also known occasions when difficulty understanding an accent – whether genuine or feigned – has been used to diminish or undermine a person. For a pretty vivid example, watch the video of Russell Brand being interviewed on US television: at points when he’s in full flow, and has his interviewers on the back foot (watch at 4’38 and 7’32 specifically) they try to take the wind out of his sails by claiming they can’t understand his Essex vowels. Genuinely, or is it just a sly tactic?
If a strongly-accented employee or colleague feels like something similar is going on when you tell them you struggle to understand them, it can really damage the working relationship.
A solution, not a problem
So how do you tell some they need accent reduction classes? I’ve spoken to a range of employers and HR professionals about this, and to be honest, no-one has a foolproof method for starting this conversation. (Trust me, I’m working on it!)
As with the coaching I do, it all depends on the individual, and the relationship you have. Sometimes it can be done with an informal chat; often it works when it comes as part of an otherwise glowing appraisal or performance review (‘you’re doing fantastic work, we’re really pleased, the only area we really need to work on is communication skills…’)
It’s always more effective to talk about how accent reduction classes would benefit the individual, rather than how they would help everyone else. It’s not about making life easier for everyone else, it’s about making life easier for the accented person: enhancing her skills, her effectiveness, her confidence. ‘Imagine how much more satisfying and productive your working life would be without all that confusion, embarrassment and timewasting!’ (Or words to that effect…)
Accent-uate the positive
So if there is someone you know, a colleague or a friend, who’s frustrated at having to repeat him- or herself all the time, or who hates being asked to speak in meetings, it could be that they would love to get help, if others weren’t too polite to tell them about it. Saying something could be the biggest favour you ever do them. Just remember to emphasise the benefits for them, rather than all the benefits it might bring to you!
One tip though: if you’re in HR and you’re recommending accent reduction training to a member of staff, it always goes down better if the company is offering to pay for it
Click on ‘Contact Me’ above to find out more about accent reduction and confident speaking. Til next time…